The continuous growth of greenhouse gas emissions may create new conditions, to which farmers may not be able to adapt.
Extreme heatwaves, prolonged droughts and worsening floods are among features of a changing climate on a warming planet, and they will inevitably impact our food supplies. Yet just how much of an impact warming temperatures will have on agriculture and animal husbandry worldwide is hotly debated.
Now a team of scientists in Finland say they know the answer: a third of global food production, including both crops and livestock, will be at risk by the end of the century if we fail to limit warming to between 1.5°C and 2°C.
The result of that failure, they explain in a study, will be that “humanity will be forced into a new era in which past experience is of reduced validity and uncertainties increase dramatically.” In other words, much of the world will be in a climatic flux with unpredictable consequences.
Because the vast majority of global crop production takes place in areas with predictable patterns of rainfall, temperature and aridity, extreme and increasingly erratic weather will decimate crops and make large swaths of land no longer suitable for agriculture, the experts say.
“Food production as we know it developed under a fairly stable climate, during a period of slow warming that followed the last ice age,” says Matias Heino, a main author of the the study who is a doctoral candidate at Aalto University in Finland. “The continuous growth of greenhouse gas emissions may create new conditions, and food crop and livestock production just won’t have enough time to adapt,” Heino adds.
The areas most vulnerable to climate change because of their low resilience to further climate stresses are tropical South and Southeast Asia as well as the so-called Sahel region in Africa, a semiarid area stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea between the Saharan desert and the humid Guinean zone.
The scientists reached this conclusion after mapping out two future scenarios for climate change: in one CO2 emissions continue growing unhalted; in the other emissions are cut radically. They then assessed how climate change would affect 27 of the most important food crops and seven different livestock in the world while taking into account the varying capacities of different societies to adapt to climatic changes.
They found, not surprisingly, that countries worldwide would experience threats in various ways. In 52 of the 177 countries studied the entire food production would remain safe, including most European countries.
On the other hand, as much as 95 percent of current food production would fall outside of the safe climatic space in future. Especially hard hit would be countries that are already vulnerable, including Cambodia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana and Suriname.
“Alarmingly, these nations also have significantly less capacity to adapt to changes brought on by climate change when compared to rich Western countries,” the scientists say. “In all, 20% of the world’s crop production and 18% of livestock production under threat are located in countries with low resilience to adapt to changes.”
However, if we manage to lower our emissions significantly enough to keep warming to a relatively moderate level, we can avoid a massive blow to the global food supply, say the scientists.
“The good news is that only a fraction of food production would face as-of-yet unseen conditions if we collectively reduce emissions, so that warming would be limited to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius,” explains Matti Kummu, a professor of global water and food issues at Aalto University.