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How is Climate Change Impacting our Food?

Climate change is set to impact all areas of human life, and food is no exception. In fact, many food producers around the world are already starting to feel the effects of climate change. Here are 10 ways that climate change is expected to impact, or already affects, the way we produce our food.

By Vincent Fobelets

1. Kenyan corn farmers switch to avocados 

Every year, European imports of Kenyan avocados grow by around 10%. This is partly due to the green fruit’s growing popularity, but it’s also partially due to climate change. 

For many Kenyan corn farmers, maize lethal necrosis disease (MNL), driven on by the changing weather, threatens their current way of life. After seeing their corn harvest waste away, many switch to growing the more lucrative avocado for export. Luckily, the Rift Valley and central regions of Kenya are wet enough to grow avocados, but there is still a risk of drought and extreme temperatures that could spell disaster for these farmers’ new avocado crops. 

2. Thai farmers turn to stronger rice seeds

According to a report from the Asian Development Bank, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia are experiencing the greatest effects of climate change in Asia. The report predicts a decrease in rice harvests of almost 50% by 2100 unless farmers can find ways to adjust and implement new technologies. 

To prevent the collapse of future rice harvests, the Thai government is sharing seeds of a new, more resilient version of rice. Farmers who don’t have access to these seeds are looking for other solutions instead, such as adjusting their cultivation calendar or diversifying their harvest with other crops such as tilapia, cucumber, and spring onions. 

3. French wheat harvests shrink

While climate change might actually benefit wheat farmers in some parts of Europe, farmers in Europe’s southern regions are set to get the short end of the stick. A study from Environmental Research Letters predicted that warmer summers will decrease winter wheat harvest in France by between 7% and 21% by the end of the century. This problem is exacerbated by North American ozone pollution that reaches Europe through the wind, since ozone damages plant cells and slows plant growth, leading to a poorer wheat harvest. 

4. Ivorian chocolate enters a vicious cycle 

Ivory Coast is the largest cocoa bean producer, producing 32% of the world’s cocoa beans - but according to studies from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, production is drastically falling due to rising temperatures and decreased rainfall. Reduced yields drive Ivorian farmers to cut back more of the forest to make room for cacao plantations, creating a vicious cycle as deforestation makes the region even drier and warmer. 

Consumers can help break this cycle by choosing chocolate with certification marks, such as UTZ or Fairtrade. These certifications prohibit deforestation and strive to give farmers a higher income, allowing farmers to invest in better and more sustainable cultivation methods that are resilient enough to survive the changing climate. 

5. French wine battles for its future

At first, it may seem that French winegrowers are faring well with climate change - warmer and drier summers are improving the quality of their wine. On average, winegrowers are harvesting grapes two weeks earlier than a few decades ago. This creates a better balance between acids and sugars in the grapes and, therefore, allows winemakers to produce better wine. 

However, rising temperatures are also causing the yield of grape harvests to decrease. Scientists from Harvard and NASA have warned that if temperatures continue to rise, there will be a tipping point, likely around the end of the century, where the region around Bordeaux, the most important wine region in France, could be too warm to produce quality wine.

6. Belgian cows feel the heat

Cows in Europe are producing less milk, containing fewer proteins and fats, due to rising temperatures. Warmer temperatures also make cattle more susceptible to diseases and physical problems and encourage the spread of disease-carrying insects from southern regions further up north. Simultaneously, climate change complicates the supply of quality and affordable fodder due to the deteriorating cereal harvest, giving dairy farmers real cause for alarm.

7. Legumes remove nitrogen from Canadian air

Legumes (such as kidney beans, lentils or chickpeas) are relatively resistant to climate change. Besides a high tolerance for drought, their broad genetic diversity means legumes lend themselves to adapting to new conditions by selecting more climate-resilient varieties. They can also “fix” nitrogen from the air into the soil, meaning they need fewer artificial fertilisers than other crops. According to the scientific journal Nature, Canada is one of the few winners of climate change since warmer weather makes greater parts of the country fit for agriculture, allowing Canadian farmers to grow a greater variety of crops (including legumes). 

8. Bananas from Ecuador risk getting sick

One in four bananas on European shop shelves are from Ecuador. Almost all of them belong to the Cavendish breed and are practically genetically identical. This makes them extremely vulnerable to diseases and even extinction as a species. In fact, this has happened once before: in the 1950s, one disease eradicated the entire world’s supply of Gros Michel banana plants (the most popular banana before the Cavendish). 

This history lesson is more relevant than ever, with a fungus known as Panama Disease spreading across the globe - aided by warmer global temperatures. With the future of the Cavendish looking uncertain, farmers and researchers are working hard to contain Panama Disease as best they can and find new, more resistant banana varieties to replace the Cavendish. 

9. Bees abandon Brazilian coffee

A recent study estimated that the amount of land in Latin America suitable for growing coffee will shrink by between 73% and 88% by 2050. This has major consequences for Brazil, Europe’s biggest supplier of coffee beans. Alongside the loss of suitable land, diseases such as coffee leaf rust are expected to plague plantations, often driving farmers to use illegal pesticides. 

But perhaps most concerning is the decline in local bee populations. As temperatures rise, bees will leave regions that exceed their heat tolerance. If regions are left without enough pollinators, it could mean the end of Brazil’s coffee plantations. 

10. Algae decimate Chilean salmon 

Chile is the second-largest producer of Atlantic-farmed salmon after Norway. In the summer of 2016, the Chilean fishing industry took a big hit when 40,000 tonnes of salmon (equivalent to two years of fish production) died after a suffocating algal bloom, costing an estimated $80 million. According to a 2018 study from the Scientific Reports, climate change contributed to this algal bloom via rises in water temperatures and changes in ocean currents.

The author originally wrote this piece for the Belgian outlet Eos Tracé. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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