11. Jun, 2015

Food production and climate change: a two-way street

I must confess I am too much of a cynic to be an Early Adopter of anything: fashions, philosophies, gadgets, diets; you name it. I am also pragmatic, and refuse to “buy into” fashionable views lock, stock & barrel because I reserve the right to make up my own mind. Hence my approach to climate change. I am not clever enough to have a dogmatic view on whether it is a natural, cyclical phenomenon or the result of man-made greenhouse gasses (or both). To me, it is an important debate, but one that needs to be waged in scientific circles and not on Twitter or in pubs. What worries me more than identifying the origins of climate change, is to anticipate its effects and figure out how to deal with them.

As someone who lives food, I am obviously concerned about the possible negative effects of climate change on food quantity and quality. Having read extensively on the subject, I have also become worried about the flip side of the coin – how producing the food we eat is actually exacerbating climate change! This piece is not supposed to be an academic work, but rather a sharing of information which could help inform your attitudes and choices.

Dead men walking...

We can all agree on one thing: whether this is simply the next up leg in of Mother Earth’s temperature cycle or a man-made calamity, average temperatures are rising around the world. This general trend is punctuated by major local differences, so its effects vary from region to region. The rate of warming seems to be higher at high latitudes, while average rainfall seems to be decreasing most near the Equator. Generally, the oceans are warming, but in some areas (e.g. the North Atlantic) melting polar ice caps could actually result in the water becoming colder. Let me give you an idea of some of the adverse effects of this trend on some of our favourite foods.

Our daily bread. Water shortages and warmer temperatures are bad news for wheat farmers. A rise of just 1˚C in average temperatures in wheat-producing areas like the US Midwest would slow the rate of crop growth by 7%The world’s other everyday starch, rice, needs flooded paddy fields to grow and is in turn extremely vulnerable to desiccation. To grasp how serious a threat this is, one only has to bear in mind that, together, China and India have 37% of the world's population, but only 10.8% of the world's fresh water. The Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers are melting fast; bad news for agriculture in a region with nearly 45% of the world’s people!

The meat we eat.A large part of the world’s maize crop is used to feed livestock, so lower maize yields could mean higher meat prices, and fewer servings of meat per capita. This as the rapid growth of East Asian economies is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, causing them to start eating meat more often. Any large shock to the supply of animal fodder will result in massive pressure on meat prices.  

Seafood. In addition to its impacts on land, climate change can also contribute to rising Carbon Dioxide levels in the ocean. This, in turn, leads to ocean acidification, which could threaten a whole range of edible ocean creatures. For example, the shells of young oysters and other calcifying organisms are likely to grow less and less sturdy over time, as the oceans’ acidity increases. The acidity of the oceans has already increased by 25% since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Most fish species are slow to adapt to acidification, leading to a risk of species collapse. Some animals, like tropical fish and lobsters, have started migrating in search of cooler habitats, which puts the native habitats of a host of other species at risk. Fish are also more susceptible to infections and parasites in warmer water, so epidemics become more likely. Last but not least, fish sizes are shrinking across the board; not just because of over-exploitation but increasingly due to oxygen depletion in the ocean because warmer weather hampers oxygen absorption. Less oxygen means that the fish are likely to be smaller even if not overfished. Average sizes are forecast to drop by 14% - 24% by 2050.

Beans. Pulses are a staple food for millions of people in Latin America and much of Africa, and soya to vegetarians everywhere, but they may falter in the face of climate change. Higher temperatures affect flowering and seed production in bean vines, reducing yields by as much as 25%. And too much rain – not to mention floods or unseasonal showers – will destroy some crops as well.

Apples. Deciduous fruit need a cold, extended winter to grow and produce optimally. Warmer winters mean smaller apple harvests, which translate into less apples and pressure on prices. Climate change will not just affect quantity, but also quality. The taste and texture of apples are changing – according to a recent Japanese study, global warming is making Fuji apples sweeter and softer. The same effect is probably going to occur in Normandy, England and Quebec sooner or later; bad news for both apple eaters and cider drinkers.

Bananas. In Costa Rica banana farmers are already experiencing the effects of a warming climate. Temperature changes and rainfall discrepancies have allowed pests to flourish threatening banana crops to the point that in 2013 the government called a state of emergency. The pests also make the banana more susceptible to various diseases.

Coffee. Some analysts are predicting that, if the current trends continue, Latin American coffee production would be replaced by Asian beans. The Arabica bean grows in developing nations where it requires tropical heat in order to grow well. Climate change may affect the bean from growing effectively by allowing a fungus called “coffee rust” to develop. In 2013 Guatemala called a state of emergency because of an outbreak of coffee rust. It is forecast that premium coffee trees in Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala will become stunted by 2050. Latin America isn’t the only coffee-producing region facing the impacts of shifting weather patterns. In Africa, the land area suitable for growing coffee is predicted to shrink by around two thirds as the climate warms.

ChocolateAccording to a 2011 study, cacao beans – the raw ingredient in chocolate – will become much less plentiful over the next few decades due to rising temperatures and falling water supplies. A report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2011 predicted that temperatures would rise by 2.3˚C by 2050 in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire – source of 70% of the world’s cacao. The higher temperatures will cause the trees to lose more water through evaporation, and reduce their yield.

Peanuts. Prices of peanut products continue to soar due to continued droughts in the main peanut-producing areas. A 2009 US study on global change illustrated that most peanut farms will either experience too little rainfall or too much rain prior to harvest which could lead to toxic mould.

Wine. The wine industry is currently in a (fleeting) sweet spot. Thanks to warmer temperatures and more sunny days, wine grapes are now produced in unlikely places like England and Quebec. But if the trend continues, many traditional wine-producing areas will become unsuitable for grape production within the next generation. Australia and California could lose more than two thirds of their vineyards, and South Africa half, by 2050. Moreover, even the regions that survive will be faced with quality issues. Wine makers have long known that unusually hot summers are followed by poor vintages, as grapes ripen sooner with more sugar and less acid. If this becomes the norm, the prestigious Bordeaux and Burgundy grands crus may soon be a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

It's not just how we choose to travel or heat our homes that determines our “carbon footprint”. What we eat also has a climate impact. Understanding the resources that go into producing our meals can make us more aware of the relationship between food and climate change, and help us make better choices. There are several factors that contribute to food's climate impact, including how much energy is used to produce it (and whether the food is grown organically or with chemical inputs), and how far it has to travel before it gets to the table. 

The true cost of meat. Meat production is a major contributor to climate change. It is estimated that livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land use, and occupies 30% of the land surface of the planet. Because of their sheer numbers, livestock produce a considerable volume of greenhouse gases (such as methane and nitrous oxide) that contribute to climate change. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases.

The growing of livestock and other animals for food is an extremely inefficient process. Look at the numbers: it takes approximately 5 - 7 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef. Each of those kilograms of grain takes considerable energy and water to produce, process, and transport. It takes over 3 000 litres of water to produce one hamburger, and more than 6 000 litres to produce a 300 g steak. As meat consumption grows around the world, so will its climate impact.

Chemical warfare. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are widely used in agriculture, and are often made from fossil fuels. Manufacturing and transporting these chemicals use significant quantities of energy and produces greenhouse gasses. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that chemical farming uses considerably more energy per unit of production than organic farms, which do not use these chemical inputs. In addition, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in soils produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Organic farms, on the other hand — which rely on natural manure and compost for fertilizer - store much more carbon in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Closer to home. Where our food comes from is also important. Currently, the average meal travels 1200 km from the farm to plate. Food that is grown closer to home will therefore have fewer transportation emissions associated with it, and also be fresher and support local farmers. And as the distance food travels decreases, so does the need for processing and refrigeration to reduce spoilage.

Local or organic: which is better for the climate? While it's good to buy locally grown food for many reasons, the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer actually makes up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint of food — approximately 11% on average, according to studies. How the food is grown makes up a much larger percentage — roughly 83%. For example, one study showed that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped 18,000 kilometers to the UK still produced less than one quarter of the greenhouse gases than local British lamb. Why? Because local flocks were fed grains, which take a lot of energy to grow, while the New Zealand flocks were grazed on grass. Shipping the lamb to the UK was responsible for only 5% of the overall greenhouse gases, whereas 80% of the emissions were from farm activities. Similar lifecycle assessments have found the same results for other foods.

Squaring the circle. In a healthy farm system, agriculture works in harmony with the natural environment. This begins with healthy soil that stores water and nutrients and provides a stable base to support plant roots. In a sustainable system, soil is kept in balance. Crops are rotated through the fields to replace nutrients in the soil. Where there is livestock, animals graze the land, then waste from those animals is used to fertilize the soil. The principle is that as farmers take from the land they also give back. Industrial farms disregard that need for balance. Land is used continuously and not given proper rest. Crops are not rotated in a way that replenishes the soil. Manure and chemical fertilizers are used to “feed” the soil, but through over-application these additives become a problem.

Mucking up the farm. Factory farms concentrate an unnatural number of animals in one place, which creates an unmanageable amount of waste. For example, a single pig excretes up to 8 kilograms of manure and urine each day. Put 1 000 of them together, and 2.7 million kilos of waste each year. On a large farm with 35 000 pigs, this adds up to over 90 million kilograms each year. On a sustainable farm animal waste can be a tool, whereas on factory farms it becomes a major pollutant.

The real menace behind the stench. Manure carries with it traces of all the substances that are used on industrial farms. These include antibiotics and artificial growth hormones, which contaminate waterways and affect the plants and animals that live in them. Nutrients and heavy metals present in animal feed are also excreted by livestock, and so end up on crop land and in water. These include zinc, copper, chromium, arsenic, cadmium and even lead.

Air and Water Pollution. Factory farms emit harmful gases and particles such as methane and hydrogen sulphide, which can contribute to global warming and harm the health of those living or working nearby. Air pollution results from the overuse of machinery, the mismanagement of manure, and the irresponsible feeding practices that characterise industrial farming. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides have turned agriculture into a leading source of water pollution all over the world. Runoff from factory farms kills fish, degrades aquatic habitats and threatens drinking water supplies. Additionally, factory farms use tremendous amounts of water, which cuts into the precious supplies of potable water.

Unintended consequences. Even practices that are intended as environmentally friendly are sometimes not unqualified successes. Take ethanol, for example. While using ethanol distilled from maize instead of fossil fuel reduces the carbon footprint of your car, the distillation process has a massive water footprint. Producing a litre of ethanol consumes about 100 gallons of fresh water. In some regions, ethanol production can take three or more times that amount.

And in conclusion...

I hope this piece hasn’t made you despondent or afraid; it was certainly not the intention. What is clear to me is that the world no longer has the option of sticking its collective head in the sand. The clock is ticking, and we all have to do what we can not to add fuel to the raging fire.

As Al Gore (“inventor” of the internet) said in his Nobel Prize Lecture: “There's an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ We have to go far — quickly. And that means we have to quickly find a way to change the world's consciousness about exactly what we're facing, and why we have to work to solve it. The future is knocking at our door right now. Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: ‘What were you thinking; why didn't you act?’ Or they will ask instead: ‘How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?’ If the crib is on fire, you don’t argue that the baby is flame retardant – you act! We must act now; all we need is the will to act and that is a renewable resource.”

For my part, I believe we as foodies can make a difference to our kids’ futures by believing in what we do and doing what we believe in. I am making a conscious effort to eat more poultry than mammals, more seafood than meat and also lower down the food chain (sardines instead of swordfish, mussels instead of musselcracker), more fruit and veggies and less meat, favouring organic and free range foods and buying mostly local seasonal as opposed to imported stuff grown in tunnels on another continent.

And please don’t call me bunny hugger – rabbit is one of my favourite foods...