New Reports Flag Climate Change Food Challenges

Posted on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 by

World climate and agriculture research scientists weighed in heavily last week with two new reports that underscore the urgent need to address climate change and its potential impact on our food supply.

The first report, Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 220 leading climate scientists. It makes clear there is a direct link between the short-term weather extremes we’ve been experiencing and the longer-term climate changes brought on by greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere.

The atmosphere is warming and has been for decades. The new IPCC analysis says that globally there is no doubt we will see increased and more extreme heat waves, droughts, and flood conditions. Each of these extremes has implications for food production in California, as we discussed in a recent blog.

The second report, produced by 13 scientists on the international Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, is entitled Achieving Food Security in the Face of Climate Change. It cautions that the time is now to begin transforming our food production, distribution, and consumption activities. It lays out a set of action points that are sobering in their scope. As the authors put it, what is required is a “transition to a global food system that satisfies human needs, reduces its carbon footprint, adapts to climate change and is in balance with planetary resources requires concrete and coordinated actions, implemented at scale, simultaneously, and with urgency.”

The scientists warn that “business as usual in our globally interconnected food system will not bring us food security and environmental sustainability.” They add that “greatly expanded investments in sustainable agriculture, including improving supporting infrastructure and restoring degraded ecosystems, are an essential component of long-term economic development. The sooner they are made, the greater the benefits will be.”

Though these two reports are global in focus, they contain important warnings that could easily apply to food and farming here at home.

We know the obesity epidemic will have a huge financial impact on our health care system, and huge personal impacts on individuals, families, and communities. It is another indication that business as usual is neither healthy, nor sustainable.

Never has consumer interest in food been greater and better informed. The rise of the good food movement is already prompting shifts in farming practices, food policies, and consumer buying preferences. Organic sales continue to rise despite the on-going economic slide. People are demanding access to locally produced foods that are raised sustainably and arrive in the marketplace fresh and flavorful. They are using their food dollars to say clearly that they want their local family farmers and farm laborers to thrive.

New federal programs aim to improve the quality of school lunch and to provide universal access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Other programs encourage on-farm conservation practices that have provided tremendous opportunities to reverse environmental damage that is often the result of industrial agriculture practices. But these programs are under constant threat of being scaled back or eliminated.

As with most complex problems, a systems approach to the solutions is needed, and these solutions must address multiple challenges. We agree with the authors of the global food security report — sustainable agriculture solutions, grounded in a system-wide reconfiguration of how food is produced and distributed, are the most powerful way to solve many of the limits and shortcomings of our current approach.

While the international commission offered its recommendations in a global context, we believe that their call for a coordinated framework of sustainable agriculture policies and programs is applicable in California as well. Here are some actions we can take at the state level to help ensure our own food security and the economic security of our food producers:

  • Invest in more research to identify the best farming practices for mitigation and adaptation to climate change,
  • Provide more technical assistance to help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change,
  • Reward farmers who adopt climate-friendly food production systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change,
  • Strengthen support for on-farm conservation, and
  • Encourage renewable energy production through grant support and farmer-friendly policies.

We can achieve a vibrant economy that supports healthy food access, even in the face of climate change. But it will take investment. Funds generated through implementation of California’s climate change law (AB32) should go to supporting our food security in the face of challenging climate changes.

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