A little food for thought on global climate change

One of the greatest concerns coming out of the report is the impact of a changing climate on food production

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change release Report No. 5 which outlined dire consequences ahead as the world marches into a warming world. And without doubt part of the problem has been human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, the report was based on more than 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies. The document, he said, was the “most solid evidence you can get in any scientific discipline”.

The fingerprints of a changing climate include the extremes of weather patterns and catastrophic weather events. Temperature extremes have brought ferocious drought to Australia, Russia and southwest U.S.A. Extreme storms have driven Sandy, Katrina, and typhoon Haiyan. Extreme cold brought central and eastern Canada to a standstill this winter. That Arctic vortex has been linked to a weakening jet stream influenced by warming Arctic temperatures. Mountain peaks are draining away snowpacks, oceans are becoming more acidic putting at risk corals and fish stocks. Wild species are changing migration patterns, trees are on the move shifting their northern ranges further north while small mammals in the mountain are moving to higher elevations. Arctic ice is collapsing just as the permafrost is liquefying and destabilizing homes.

This isn’t hypothetical stuff. It’s real and it’s happening now.

The IPCC clarion call is reduce emissions, mitigate human activities and adapt. But one of the greatest concerns coming out of the report is the impact of a changing climate on food production, water resources, and the security for both.

Many countries are seeing a decrease in crop yields. Russia’s 2012 mega-drought resulted in an almost 25 per cent lower grain harvest than 2011 and affected worldwide wheat prices.

Getting ahead of a looming food crisis, agricultural research scientists are already working on breeding new strains of crops or genetically modifying them to be more resistant to drought, disease, or pests.

In recent years the agricultural livestock sector has been accused of being unsustainable and accounting for 14.5 per cent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. But meat from livestock is essential for a healthy diet and, in many third world countries, culturally significant. A study from the University of Bristol, U.K. reported in the journal Nature that 70 per cent of grains used by developed countries is fed to animals. This could be changed by grazing cattle, sheep, and goats on pasture and eating hay, silage, and high fibre crop residues unsuitable for humans, making more land available for human food. Properly managed graze ranges generate biodiversity, maintain the ecosystem, and improve carbon capture by plants and soil.

Eat food, mostly plants, not too much goes the mantra. Add to that, eat local food, locally produced, or grown at home. And one of the most basic foods is the potato.

“In the U.S. we rely primarily on 10 to 12 types of potatoes,” said Karl Zimmerer, professor of geography with Penn State University. “In South America there are 74 different types of potatoes in a single field.”

In fact, there are some 5,000 potato varieties among the South American Andes mountain slopes where potatoes originated, many with future food potential. The potato yields more nutritious food more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major food crop.

The other half of the food equation is the appalling amount wasted. Worldwide, half of all food produced is wasted in processing, transport, supermarkets, or kitchens. About 30 per cent of food is thrown away in the U.S.  Canadians waste some $27 billion worth of food annually, much of it tossed in landfills that produce 20 per cent of Canada’s emissions.

Perhaps the first step to mitigation and adapting should start at home.