Photo by Douglas Berry. From http://www.spc.ncep.noaa.gov/misc/AbtDerechos/casepages/may27-282001page.htm
Today’s post is written by my father, Wendell Wiggins. My dad, AKA The Science Desk, is a pretty smart guy. He received his PhD in physics from The Johns Hopkins University, and has worked in biophysics, nuclear physics and geophysics. Before global warming and climate change became a widely recognized problem and running out of oil was considered a serious problem, he developed new methods for finding oil and gas. Since retiring he has dedicated much of his time to trying to inform others about the dangers of climate change and what we can do to delay and reverse the changes to our planet. In today’s post he discusses how climate change affects our food supply.
Our planet is warming beyond its naturally determined average temperature because of the huge amount of carbon dioxide that human activity dumps into the atmosphere. The fact that our climate is changing has been established beyond any reasonable doubt by decades of scientific study, and expert climate scientists calculate the magnitude of how much more warming we can expect more accurately and more alarmingly with each passing month and year.
You likely are aware of this sad trend of our planet’s environment. I even guess that as a person who particularly is interested in our food supply and how we eat, you realize that the effects of drought in some places, floods in others, record high temperatures, more extreme storms, and changing farming conditions in nearly every locale are already driving up food prices. Here is a short video from NASA that summarizes the effects of climate change on agriculture.
In this article I ignore prices and discuss a few more subtle effects on the world’s food supply and how you may experience these effects as you shop and cook for yourself and family.
Let’s be clear right up front: I am no climate expert, and I am certainly no magical seer of the future. As I discuss what the future holds for our food supply I will often use the words “likely, probable, is expected” and such like. Do not think that just because nobody knows today exactly what the future holds means the things discussed probably won’t happen. The things I discuss are “likely, probable, and are expected.”
I’ve written many scientific papers, and I’ve peer reviewed many others. I know how to find reliable scientific and technical information; and I usually know how to recognize fairy tales, propaganda, and industry-sponsored lies when I see them. I see them much too often on my TV. I will give links for the most controversial statements I make or give quotes. They will be from reputable, presumed-unbiased, popular sources, or, if necessary, from academic articles.
Changes in the growing season
While some politicians and industrial spokesmen have suggested that climate change is good for agriculture because in many places it might produce a longer and warmer growing season, the effects are almost all negative for food production. Consider growing apples for instance.
An apple appears in the grocery store only after a long and complicated life of growing. First its tree must bloom. Blooming occurs whenever a set of conditions coincide. A detailed study of when the peak blooming of the famous cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC occurs has found that already the peak bloom date has moved up by several days (Ref. 1). By 2050, the peak bloom date will be more than a week earlier than historically and much earlier if dramatic actions are not taken to prevent runaway global warming.
When the bloom date shifts earlier, the tree has less time to rest and recuperate over the winter. That’s one of the reasons that a longer growing season is not necessarily a good thing. An article by the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture notes:
“Most hardy fruit trees need a certain amount of cold winter weather to end their dormancy and to promote spring growth. When winters are too mild, spring growth is delayed, irregular and slow. These factors extend the period of blooming and, thereby, increase the possibility of frost injury.“ (Ref. 2).
During the short time when the tree is in bloom, each bloom has to be pollinated before it can produce a fruit. Insects and plants in any area need to be synchronized for good pollination to occur. If the blooms come early but the pollinating insects are still dormant–no fruit.
Of course, while pollinating insects are beneficial, many are not. Insects that lay eggs in the bloom or bore into the fruit or even just carry a disease to the tree may damage the quality of the fruit or make it entirely inedible. A longer period of warm weather and a shorter winter usually produces more insects, and the change generally increases the insect damage to crops.
Adjusting and moving the orchards to compensate for climate change will not be a trivial thing. The best growing conditions for a given plant species involve more than just the length of the growing season. The length of daylight matters, the type of soil matters, the rainfall matters, and other issues matter – and oh by the way, if one wants a new orchard, it takes quite a few years to grow mature trees.
To just make my point quickly, apple trees don’t grow everywhere. Most apples in the U.S. grow in Washington State, New York and Michigan. And not by accident–they grow there because all the conditions are just right for producing apples. Climate change is going to upset this nice, centuries-long balance for those places, and new just-right locales will be hard to find.
Genetically engineered food
When the genes or the genetic controls of any living organism–plant, animal, bacteria, yeast, or other–are genetically modified, it is known as a genetically modified organism, or just GMO. Many of you may disapprove of GMOs on many grounds, but I don’t want to wade into the argument over GMOs in an overall way. For just a moment, let’s put aside the GMO issues that don’t relate to climate change.
As mentioned above, insects proliferate in warm climates, and as a result of shifting climate, some completely new insects may appear in places they never lived before (Ref. 3). An effective way to combat such insect invasions is though genetic modification of the crop plants. However, several instances of insects adapting to the modified crop have been noted. Battling the insects by this method is at best an endless war of insect adaptation versus newly modified crops.
Drought resistant GMO crops also have been developed that may improve the survival of a crop in moderate drought, but GMO cannot make the crops survive the most severe droughts coupled with record temperatures.
Given that work is already underway to exploit GMOs to cope with climate change, we may well guess that GMOs will become one of the primary adaptation tools for agriculture. As climate change reduces global production of crops, the incentive to adopt GMOs that combat insects and drought and give the crops any better chance to survive will be irresistible, and we may anticipate greatly increased usage. So the issue turns back to one’s overall approval of GMOs. Personally, I think some cases might warrant the use of genetic modification, but I really don’t like being dependent on such an ethically and biologically complex technology that places immense power and wealth in a few hands. While some of the ethical problems could be solved if we had suitable laws about intellectual property and laws that deal with the unique aspects of genetic inventions. In the meantime, don’t hold your breath for these changes to be thought through and implemented by our current lobbyist-driven politics.
As historically productive lands become less productive or unusable, other lands are recruited to replace them. Deforestation is one severe consequence of seeking new farm land. Cutting away forests only adds to the severity of global warming because forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store some of it temporarily as wood or more permanently as part of their biomass is buried in soil or the sediments of lakes and rivers.
Most of the land that is farmed in any country has become farm land because it is good for farming. Maybe some other plot of land has water, but it isn’t naturally fertile. The use of extra fertilizer adds to energy consumption and adds to the cost of producing. Maybe another plot is fertile, but it has nasty insects. Maybe another plot will grow crops abundantly, but it has been polluted. While not related to climate change, we have a current example of a problem that arises when good farm land is damaged by human activity. In 2012 it was reported in the popular media that rice may contain troubling concentrations of arsenic. The story of how arsenic ends up in the rice has several aspects, but some arsenic has been taken from the soil in every sample tested. On the other hand, some samples of a given type of rice, say long-grain white rice, contain considerably more than others. Looking at the table of samples in a report posted by Consumer Reports (Ref.4), a general conclusion is that rice grown in the southern U.S. often has more arsenic than rice grown in other places. Why would this be? Consumer Reports explains:
“In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle. “
A considerable reduction in arsenic in rice could be achieved by switching to land never used for growing cotton, but fertile land that is also flat so it can be flooded before harvest and with a convenient water supply for that flood is hard to find. The flat land along the Mississippi River that first attracted cotton farmers and then rice farmers is simply irreplaceable. As in this rice-contamination case, farm land that is rendered less fertile by drought and heat from climate change will be very hard or impossible to replace with new, clean, fertile land.
The rising level of our oceans caused by global warming also diminishes the land available for farming. As ocean water warms, it also expands, and ice structures such as the arctic ice sheet, the ice covering Greenland, Antarctica and many glaciers melt and run into the ocean, and the ocean with no place else to go begins to take part of our land. Adding to a simple increase in sea level is the impact of more severe storms driven by global warming (like hurricane Sandy) that push seawater inland. All this rising and wind-driven saltwater has to go somewhere, so it pushes the beaches back or even pushes inland underground to come up in well water. Salt may reduce the fertility of coastal farm land or even render it unusable. Still further, as climate-driven drought increases irrigation from wells, the ocean water flows into the fresh water aquifer supplying those wells and again ends up in the farming soil.
Clearly land that is rendered unproductive by climate change will be virtually impossible to replace. While we may “adapt” to some effects of climate change, we cannot adapt to this one easily if at all.
The ultimate adaptation to unproductive land is to move crops indoors to an artificially productive climate. Indoor farming uses a huge amount of energy to heat, to cool, to pump water, to recycle water, to manufacture fertilizer, and provide other conditions that would have been less costly or free on historical farm plots. The use of fossil fuels to run an indoor farm just makes climate change worse. Indoor farming is a viable option to replace traditional farming only if it is driven by renewable, clean energy.
The problems of indoor production will likely have other effects. For example, GMO technology could create new strains of crops optimally adapted to indoor growing, but many heirloom strains are unlikely to be well suited.
Indoor farming is unlikely to be an economic option for lower-value, commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, etc. Thus while indoor farming may partially ease the problems of climate change, it cannot be the complete solution.
I’ve already mentioned ocean level rise and how it may damage productive farmland along the coasts. This is but a sideshow to the widespread damage being done by climate change offshore. One kind of damage is to coral reefs. The damage happening to reefs now has not reduced the production of seafood for human consumption significantly, but consider what happens as global warming continues. The importance of reefs is summarized by NOAA as:
“Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be another 1 to 8 million undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs…” (Ref 5).
“on average, the upper 400 meters (1,312 feet) of the ocean warmed by 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit) to 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) from 1900 to 2000. “
When a reef is subjected to unusual warmth, microorganisms that live in and on the mineral core of the reef either die or detach from the reef and float away. Only the bare, white mineral skeleton is left, so such an event is called “coral bleaching.” In simple terms, the coral is now dead. Coral bleaching occurs more often now than when the oceans were cooler. A bleaching usually occurs in shallow water or when a temporary warming event such as El Nino occurs to raise the water temperature even more. Bleaching also is showing up at greater depths where the water used to be cooler. Since reefs are so important to a balanced, healthy ocean food chain, their demise eventually leads to disruption of the entire chain.
The warming ocean is also becoming more acidic. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution the oceans have absorbed around 530 billion tons of carbon dioxide (Ref 8). The ocean is becoming like a giant can of soda pop. When you were in grade school did you perform the experiment of placing a chicken bone in a glass of carbonated drink? The bone becomes limp and squishy. Now imagine what happens to clam shells, and other carbonate skeletons as the ocean becomes carbonated!
Overall the oceans are under stress unlike anything in millions of years. You also might recall the simple food chain that you learned in grade school. The microscopic animal (plankton) is eaten by a little animal (baby fish of any kind) which is eaten by a bigger animal (anchovy) which is eaten by a huge animal (red snapper) which is eaten by the sea monster (grouper or shark). If we continue to ignore the loss of the first microscopic morsel, we lose the whole chain.
You should expect that over the next few decades we will see more and more impact on our seafood resources. The climate-driven changes may deplete food supplies in some ocean areas. Some species will find advantages over others. Migration patterns may change. Just as we discussed how farm crops cannot just pick up and move, ocean productivity cannot make simple, easy adaptations. The whole ocean ecosystem is so complex that no one can say with confidence how the whole web of life will change, but we have very little hope that the change will not be sad and anguished.
So now what?
We could discuss other climate-change impacts on our food supply—increased pesticide use, reduction of cultivated species, and others—but by now I think the message is clear–It’s almost all bad for traditional agriculture.
When discussing global warming and the climate change it causes, I always worry that I will be considered an alarmist or, just the opposite, I will fail to convey how important this issue is to every human on this planet. I hurry to say that it’s not too late to avoid the worst of the terrible effects that I have discussed here. But most of my readers have the same desire that I have to put off dealing with the distressing aspects of life, to be overwhelmed by the size and scope of the problem–so I also have to say that today is the day to act. With every day that passes while we dump more carbon dioxide into the air, it becomes harder to fix the problem. Somehow we have to convince our leaders to act: to end the consumption of fossil fuels and move to a system of 100% renewable energy. The power-generating stations, the automobile fueling stations, the manufacturing logistics system, and all those parts of our infrastructure that lead us at the end of the consumer chain to consume fossil fuels have to be changed. No one other than our national leaders can change those parts of our society. No one other than you can make them change it at all.
Finally–the good news.
The entire world can make the transition to renewable energy now–not in the far future. Already, some countries have moved to supply significant parts of their electricity from the sun and wind. In 2010 Denmark provided 21% of its total electricity from wind (Ref. 9). Several European countries have set short-term goals to reach greater than 20% of their electricity from solar collectors. You may hear that the United States “is the Saudi Arabia of solar energy,” as a clever way of saying that we have so much land that is bathed in sun.
Almost any visit to the beach should remind you that the U.S. has thousands of miles of coastline with almost never resting winds. Much of that coastline opens onto shallow shelves on which many thousands of wind turbines could be placed to generate enough electricity for the coastal cities and more.
The U.S. sits on many geologic areas where the temperature rises to well over the boiling point of water just a few thousand feet down. Water pumped down one well can flow underground to another well nearby and come back to the surface rich with heat to drive an electric-generating turbine. The total energy available from this resource is by itself alone more than the entire U.S. consumes for all purposes (Ref. 10).
Of course, plenty of details remain to be resolved. We need improved ways to move electric power around the country. We need better ways to store electricity for vehicle power and to smooth out variations in wind and solar power. But the main problem we have to solve is how to overcome our addiction to energy from fossil fuels.
If we begin to move to renewable energy beginning now, in 2013, and move in a serious way, about 12% reduction each year, so that we complete the transition in a few decades, the warming of the earth can be kept to less than two degrees Celsius (Ref. 11). The scientific consensus is that two degrees or less avoids the most serious problems discussed here and other extreme climate-change consequences. If we don’t begin now, the transition becomes much more difficult with each passing year.
Our children can have happy, energy-rich lives like we have today. Our food supply can be maintained and even improved in purity, availability of proper nutrients, variety, and good taste. The future is not inevitably a bleak, energy-starved one. The technology we have today is not perfect any more than the light bulbs sold by Thomas Edison were perfect—but they worked, and so can our renewable-energy work for us. Tell your family, tell your neighbors, and tell your elected representatives to do it now!
Let’s make it easy to eat green!