Although it is well established that climate change will have a detrimental effect on agriculture and livestock, there has been little scientific understanding of which regions of the world may be impacted or what the greatest risks might be. Aalto University-led study examines the effect of continued greenhouse gas emissions on global food production. On Friday, 14 May, the journal One Earth will publish the report.
‘Our research indicates that rapid, out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions could result in more than a third of current global food production falling into conditions where no food is produced today — that is, out of safe climatic room — by the end of the century,’ explains Matti Kummu, an Aalto University professor of global water and food issues.
This scenario, the study concludes, is likely to occur if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise at their current pace. According to the report, healthy climatic space refers to those areas where 95 percent of crop production currently occurs due to a combination of three climate factors: rainfall, temperature, and aridity.
‘The good news is that only a small proportion of food production will face previously unimaginable conditions if we collectively minimise pollution to keep warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius,’ Kummu says.
Climate change-related changes in rainfall and aridity and a warming climate are posing particular threats to food production in South and Southeast Asia, as well as Africa’s Sahel region. Additionally, these are areas that are incapable of adapting to changing circumstances.
‘Food processing as we know it evolved in a relatively stable environment, following the end of the last ice age. Continuous growth in greenhouse gas emissions will create new conditions to which food crop and livestock production will have insufficient time to adapt,’ says co-author and doctoral candidate Matias Heino.
The study considered two possible futures for climate change: one in which carbon dioxide emissions are drastically reduced, restricting global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, and another in which emissions continue to rise unabated.
The researchers examined the impact of climate change on 27 of the most significant food crops and seven separate livestock species, considering societies’ varying capacities for adaptation. The findings indicate that risks have a range of effects on countries and continents; in 52 of the 177 countries examined, the entire food supply will remain within the safe climatic space in the future. Finland and the majority of other European countries are included in this category.
Countries already vulnerable to climate change, such as Benin, Cambodia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, and Suriname, would be particularly hard hit if no action is taken; up to 95% of current food production will occur outside of safe climatic space. Worryingly, these countries also have a considerably lower capacity to respond to the effects of climate change than wealthy Western countries. In total, 20% of the world’s crop production and 18% of livestock production are threatened by climate change in countries with a limited capacity to adapt.
If carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, the researchers predict that the world’s largest climatic region today — the boreal forest that spans northern North America, Russia, and Europe — will diminish from 18.0 million square kilometers to 14.8 million square kilometers by 2100. Conversely, if we do not reduce pollution, only about 8 million square kilometers of the vast forest will remain. In North America, the transition will be much more dramatic: in 2000, the region occupied approximately 6.7 million square kilometers; by 2090, it could shrink to less than one-third of that size.
Arctic tundra will do much worse: it is predicted that it would vanish entirely if climate change is not halted. Simultaneously, it is predicted that the tropical dry forest and tropical desert areas would expand.
‘If we continue to allow pollution to rise, the increase in desert areas is particularly concerning, as little can grow in these conditions without irrigation. By the end of this century, over 4 million square kilometres of new desert will be added to the planet,’ Kummu says.
While this is the first study to examine the climatic conditions in which food is grown today and how climate change will impact these areas in the coming decades, the study’s take-home message is far from unique: the environment urgently needs action.
‘We must both combat climate change and strengthen the resilience of our food systems and societies; we cannot abandon the most vulnerable. ‘Food processing must be sustainable,’ Heino emphasizes.