Climate change has many ramifications across the world and is already affecting food production from coffee to wine to chocolate to corn and more.
“Agriculture has always been at the mercy of unpredictable weather, but a rapidly changing climate is making agriculture an even more vulnerable enterprise,” says the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “In some regions, warmer temperatures may increase crop yields. The overall impact of climate change on agriculture, however, is expected to be negative—reducing food supplies and raising food prices.”
Experts think that for most of the world’s farmers, the effects of climate change – including worsened problems of flooding, cyclones, heat waves, fires, droughts, diseases, and pests – will reduce the amount of food they can grow and threaten food security in many regions.
“Food security — the reliable access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food — is inextricably linked to a predictable climate and healthy ecosystems,” says the United Nations post on “Climate Change and the Future of Food”. “As the world experiences increasingly severe climate impacts on agricultural production, many of our food systems are being pushed to the breaking point. In short, climate change is putting food production at risk.”
Food and Climate Change: A Primer
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future calls climate change among the greatest threats of our generations – and generations to come -- to public health, ecosystems, and the economy.
Their Food System Primer on Food and Climate Change estimates the projected impacts of climate change to be:
- More frequent and intense hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and other extreme weather events.
- Increased heat-related deaths.
- Food and water shortages.
- Forced migration from rising sea levels and natural disasters.
- Increased damages from flooding and wildfires.
- Spreading insect-borne and water-borne diseases.
The dual threat of flooding and drought is especially problematic for farmers as both weather events can destroy crops.
Ways in each climate change is targeting agriculture, according to Johns Hopkins, include:
- Elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) are also expected to lower levels of zinc, iron, and other important nutrients in crops.
- Flooding washes away fertile topsoil that farmers depend on for productivity, while droughts dry it out, making it more easily blown or washed away.
- Higher temperatures increase crops’ water needs, making them even more vulnerable during dry periods.
- Certain species of weeds, insects, and other pests benefit from higher temperatures and elevated CO2,
increasing their potential to damage crops and create financial hardship for farmers.
- Shifting climates also mean that agricultural pests can expand to new areas where farmers hadn’t previously dealt with them.
- With higher temperatures, most of the world’s glaciers have begun to recede—affecting farmers who depend on glacial meltwater for irrigation.
- Rising sea levels, meanwhile, heighten flood dangers for coastal farms, and increase saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwater aquifers—making those water sources too salty for irrigation.
- Climate change is also expected to impact ecosystems and the services they provide to agriculture, such as pollination and pest control by natural predators.
- Many wild plant species used in domestic plant breeding, meanwhile, are threatened by extinction.
One Summer and the Climate’s Effect on Food Production
To get a snapshot of climate change and how it can interrupt food production, the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 examined the impacts of the previous summer.
“Climate change is the common thread, either triggering or worsening these horrifying conditions and leading to devastating impacts on food availability, livelihoods, and human health,” said the U.N.
- Swarms of locusts — provoked by unusually heavy rains — destroying crops across large swaths of East Africa and Southwest Asia, disrupting food supplies.
- China clamping down on food waste as flooding strained their agricultural system.
- Heat and blazing fires across the Western U.S. threatening crops and livestock.
- A derecho storm devastated millions of acres of corn and soybean production in the U.S. Midwest.
- Blistering heat and severe drought across France wreaking havoc on agricultural production and prompting farmers to call on the government for help.
“Yield growth for wheat, maize, and other crops has been declining in many countries due to extreme heat, severe weather, and droughts. By some estimates, in the absence of effective adaptation, global yields could decline by up to 30 percent by 2050,” said the U.N.
13 Foods Already Impacted by Climate Change
You do not have to wait until 2050 to see the impact of climate change on food production, according to the Tasting Table.
“Climate change may seem like a hot topic in modern political and advocacy discourse, but this scientific phenomenon has real consequences on the food we grow, catch, and harvest every day,” wrote Sara Klimek in March 2023 for the publication. “As it stands, some major food crops are already seeing the impacts of a changing atmosphere both domestically and abroad. And a whole host of other foods which, while yet to be severely impacted, are standing in harm's way.”
Klimek examined 13 foods impacted by climate change:
- Almonds: Between May and July 2020, record drought and heat in California saw almond production (80 percent of the global supply of almonds comes from this region) fall by nearly 400,000 pounds, according to NPR.
- Avocados: The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that some areas of Peru, Indonesia, and the Dominican Republic (responsible for much of avocado farming globally) may soon not be suitable for avocado production.
- Chocolate: The International Center for Tropical Agriculture estimates that cacao plant yields in West Africa (where 70 percent of the global chocolate supply comes from) will decline as soon as 2030 with warm
temperatures and altering precipitation leading to higher levels of soil erosion and poorer soil structure.
- Coffee: Coffee producers, according to the International Development Bank, are already seeing changes in cultivation due to climate change with an estimate that rising temperatures will reduce suitable coffee-growing land in Central America by 50 percent by 2050.
- Corn: Research by data analytics firm Verisk, indicates that the yield for corn grain will decrease within the U.S. Corn Belt by 20 to 40 percent from 1991-2000 levels by 2046-2055.
- Honey: The USDA Agricultural Research Service says that farmed honeybee populations are decreasing at a rate of 40 percent annually as shifts in the flowering plant cycles cause nutritional stress on bee populations.
- Livestock: The Open Veterinary Journal says that increased temperatures will likely lead to heat stress and increased disease occurrences in the livestock industry.
- Maple Syrup: Higher temperatures are leading to shorter tapping seasons and less maple syrup production. Maple syrup production is also threatened by diseases attacking trees.
- Potatoes: The International Potato Center says water stress and increased frequency of major weather events may impact the irrigation infrastructure supporting the potato crop.
- Rice: The Archives of Agronomy and Soil Science suggest that the increase and severity of hot weather can cause yields of rice crops to decrease by 40 percent within this century. Rice patties in low-elevation regions are also at risk of saltwater intrusion.
- Sardines: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific sardines landings are declining 20 to 50 percent as fish move upwards on the American Pacific Coast. Research from France shows that the average size of sardines is now two-thirds smaller than 12 years ago.
- Shellfish: Ocean acidification, according to the Washington State Department of Health, threatens shellfish as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts the chemical into carbonic acid. This acid then dissolves the structure of calcium carbonate shells in clams and other shellfish.
- Wine: Climate change is bringing earlier harvests to the Champagne industry in France while wildfires in California are altering the flavor of ripening grapes.