7 Reasons why we are a step away from a global food crisis

Our global food production system is so fragile that subtle, isolated Climate Change events are already managing to destabilise it

It is surreal to even imagine that all this variety of colourful vegetables and fruit you see at the supermarket could one day just dwindle down to a couple of crates of “this” and “that”. Meat and fish would face similar issues. The danger is real, and it is called Climate Change. But the root causes started a few thousand years ago…

Agriculture then vs. agriculture now

I’m a plant biologist. I’m also a food scientist. So I know most everything about how food is grown, but also how it is then turned into eat-ready food that you find in your supermarket shelf. Ever since humans first developed agriculture 9.5 thousand years ago, a lot has changed:

1. There are 7 billion more people on the planet.

In order to feed them, we are using a staggering 37% of the Earth’s land area. The rest of it is desert, mountains, cities, and whatever bit remains is the natural habitats undergoing the 6th Mass Extinction event.

We are clearly past the limit of how much land we can afford to use to produce enough food. At a time when we should be converting agricultural land back into forest in order to tackle CO2 and loss of natural habitats, we are losing even more arable land due to soil degradation and climate change-associated desertification. So the option of “growing” ourselves out of a food crisis is out of the question.

Just as our population increase is adding to food demand, our food production capacity is stuck in a conundrum: increasing land use would clash with the natural habitats and further raise CO2 levels. Failing to increase food production on the other hand would lead to shortages.

2. Fruit and vegetables are susceptible to extinction

Extensive breeding and selection of crops over thousands of years means we have lost huge amounts of genetic variation, which is what keeps plant populations healthy and resistant to disease.

Did you know that carrots used to be white, black, purple, orange and pink? We selected only the orange ones just a couple hundred years ago as a celebration for the Queen of Holland, which only have some of the vitamins of the original carrots. Did you know that the original banana died of a fungus? Yes, bananas were wiped out. What you are eating today is a substitute species, which is also under threat.

Yup, we could run out of bananas. Again.

Crops are being put to the test with climate change. Different species have different temperature tolerance levels. Some will not grow above a certain temperature, while others won’t reproduce. Most however will become more susceptible to disease, requiring higher and more toxic concentrations of pesticides.

3. Intensive agriculture has brought about many risks

The only benefit of large scale, intensive agriculture was an increase in our quantity of food. Everything else has been a detriment. Mechanisation, deep plowing and overuse has led to degradation of many soils, rendering the land unusable and in need of harmful fertilisers. Huge monoclone plantations have increased disease risk, and this has increased the use of herbicides and pesticides. This has meant more damage to ecosystems, and more cancer for humans.

We are stuck because in order to grow huge amounts of food we need toxic chemicals and other practices that lead to habitat destruction and extinction. Continuing down this path is already starting to come full circle

4. Insect Apocalypse: 30% of crop production under threat

It is not only bees that pollinate our crops. It is many other insects including butterflies. So far, we were killing them with pesticides. Now, climate change and habitat loss are threatening insects with total extinction, with 80% declines in populations reported in some habitats. The massive decline is still not understood, though it is suspected that insects are much more susceptible to temperature increases and heatwaves and that we may already be witnessing the effect of global warming on the insect kingdom.

If this is true, this would destroy not only a big part of agriculture, but also lead to mass extinction across plant and animal kingdoms, as plants depend on insects for reproduction and animals, especially birds, depend on insects for nutrition.

5. The Delusion of Plenty

Most of our produce comes from far, far away, sometimes continents away. International long distance trade has meant fruit and veg can loose huge amounts of its vitamin value before it even makes it to your table. But more importantly, because food trade is so global and interconnected, we will all feel the impact of a big drought or flood somewhere faraway. Usually you do not notice this because your local supermarket will order e.g. blueberries from Spain if the Chilean crop was ruined this year. But what if crops are ruined across the Earth all at the same time?

This is precisely what happened last year, where Europe, the US and Russia were witnessing a 20% drop in yields. We’ve been warned by a top sustainability scientist that if this happens 3 years in a row it could lead to mass starvation across Europe. The fact is that climate change has increased crop failure events across the globe due to drought, hail, extreme rain, and wild unpredictability in the weather. Plants can only grow under stable conditions. They are living things.

6. Meat and dairy

Much of our agriculutural land is actually not used for crops. Most of it is used to grow food for livestock. The meat industry has a tremendous impact on the environment, using up land and water and emitting CO2 as well as methane.

Guess what happens when we can’t grow food: we also can’t grow livestock food. No meat on the table

7. Fish are either migrating or going extinct

Ocean warming is already creating “fish refugees”: Greenland is set to “cash in” on climate change with herring and cod migrating northwards. Guess who followed suit, the tuna, who feed on herring. And then the killer whales, who probably feed on tuna. This global disruption in marine ecosystems and geographies of fish distribution is already wreaking havoc on the fishing industry not to mention creating international tensions that are surely set to intensify.

There is of course, one fish that cannot move to cooler waters: the greatest organism on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef. Holding at least 10% of the worlds fish species in a comparatively tiny area, it is already the frontline of the marine impacts of climate change.

You can follow me on Twitter @99blackbaloons

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Author, podcaster, scientist, documenting our system failure. Photographic Heart, Disposable Earth, Age of Separateness, Becoming Imperfect.