It is clear by now that, due to human actions, our world is changing into a warmer, more unpredictable, and more dangerous place with increasing natural disasters, fewer animal species, and additional health problems. Anthropogenic-driven climate change is likely to be the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.
We know that climate change will change many aspects of our lives, such as where we live, our weather, or even our life expectancy. But we often forget about our food. One of the biggest changes to our lives due to climate change will probably be whether we can reliably get inexpensive, healthy, and plentiful food.
How climate change will affect global nutrition
Less food: A warmer world means less food because most plants (~97% of the plants that produce our food) are less efficient at growing and making food at high temperatures (except for plants such as corn and sugarcane, which become slightly more efficient). Furthermore, heat waves, air pollution, floods, and droughts, all of which are becoming more common as the world warms, can either kill plants outright or reduce the amount of food produced per plant. Although climate change may increase the amount of land available for farming, this land will not always be useful, such as when higher temperatures also cause summer droughts and fall rains that hamper harvest. Altogether, food production will decrease as the world warms.
Unstable food: The world may be able to adapt to less food by increasing farmland and food production. However, increased food production may not be able to provide enough food, since crops are destroyed during extreme weather events which become more common as the world warms. Unpredictable floods, droughts, hurricanes, tsunamis, storms, wildfires, or even cold snaps destroy vast swathes of food in a matter of hours or days. Recent flooding in Iowa has demonstrated what this might look like in the future. The worst case scenario is when multiple disasters happen across continents, which decimates food supplies for many countries and reduces the ability of countries to help one another.
More expensive food: The combination of reduced food supply and increased variability in food supply will drive up food prices. Some reports suggest that food prices will increase 40-130% by 2050. We are already seeing the effects of climate change on food prices. A combination of heat waves and torrential rains in Europe in 2018 decimated wheat fields and increased wheat prices by over 20%. Increased food prices will have the largest effect on low income households in the US, who spend 35% of their income on food, and on people in lower income countries, who spend up to 56% of their income on food.
Food with fewer nutrients: Not only will climate change reduce the total amount of food and increase its price, it will also deprive that food of essential nutrients. The projected global warming is expected to decrease protein in plants by 6-14%, B vitamins by 15-30%, iron by 8%, magnesium by 9%, and zinc by 15%. This could cause an additional 175 million people to become zinc deficient and an additional 122 million people to become protein deficient. Nutrient decreases are more difficult to address than a decrease in the overall food supply, since it requires expensive soil interventions and/or formidable scientific advances to increase nutrients in plants.
Climate-driven alterations to our food supply will not affect everyone in the same way. People who have few resources, are historically oppressed, live in areas prone to natural disasters, or reside in a country with an unstable government are likely to experience these effects more intensely. Preventing this outcome is one aspect of the environmental justice and climate justice movements. Inequalities in food access and food security will be exacerbated by climate change, and citizens and governments must make every effort to prevent this from happening.
What we can do now to prevent climate change (and prepare for an uncertain nutrition future)
- Eat more plants and fewer animal products. Animal products are more resource intensive, use more water and land, and produce more CO2 and methane than plants. Furthermore, they are a relatively inefficient way to consume energy.
- If you do eat animal products, choose sustainable animal options, such as poultry and fish, or grass-fed beef which has a lower CO2 and methane output than grain-fed beef.
- Eat locally grown foods, which do not have to be transported long distances. Buying foods from farmers markets and local farms (such as using Community Supported Agriculture programs) is more environmentally friendly than buying the same foods from a grocery store.
- Eat food that is in season. If you are eating food grown nearby, you will only be able to obtain foods that are grown at that time (no more buying tomatoes in the middle of January in Vermont!). This prevents environmentally costly food transportation across continents and oceans.
- Eat less food overall. Most people eat more food than they actually need, so cutting back on overall food consumption is good for your health and for the planet. Just make sure to do so in healthy ways, and maintain adequate calorie intake for your lifestyle.
- Reduce food waste by buying only what you need, making more frequent trips to the grocery store to prevent food waste from large trips, and eating leftovers.
- However, the most important thing you can do is to support local, regional, national, and global policies that prioritize measures to prevent climate change and mitigate its effects. Individual efforts to change behaviors will have a smaller effect than an aggressive global response to climate change.
The world is changing, and our food supply will change with it. Our actions today will determine how we eat in the future.
Peer-edited by Madelaine Azar
Picture credit: The Tylt