How does climate change affect your food?

I don’t know how to put this but…climate change is kind of a BIG deal.

Even our children are aware it’s an important issue, as evidenced by the numbers of kids taking time off school recently to strike for climate action around the country – something many out-of-touch politicians condemned as ‘propaganda’ or just learning ‘how to join the dole queue’..

Climate change is an issue that ‘needs to be addressed’, it’s still all too easy for many to sit back and wait for someone else’ to come up with the ‘solutions’ — because climate change only poses a distant threat, that is still decades in the making….or is it?

It’s happening now and it’s happening here

The same politicians who condemned the school strikes continue to ignore some of the world’s most educated scientists when they tell us we only have limited time left to prevent climate catastrophe.(Some might say their condemnation of kids taking time away from education to protest about inaction over climate change, which will in a very real-way have a huge effect on their future, is more than a little bit hypocritical, if governments don’t even bother to listen to the educated. Some might say.)

Whatever your political standpoint, one thing is absolutely clear – there is no time to wait

The effects of climate change are already being felt around the globe. With an increase in global temperatures, caused by the greenhouse effect, weather patterns around the world are already changing. According to the UN, we have 12 years to limit climate catastrophe and keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5’C, or the results will be irreversible.

So, in real terms, what does this mean for our food supply?

While climate variability is natural, climate change will bring more extreme weather patterns, which will impact Australia’s agricultural sector significantly. This impact will in turn have ramifications for consumers, particularly as 93% of the food we eat, is grown here. Some of these changes will include:

  • An increase in extreme weather events (e.g. heatwaves, bushfires and floods) which will affect crops and livestock
  • Reduced rainfall
  • Reduced stream flow and quality of water supply across southern Australia
  • Declining pasture quality and growth
  • Declines in crop production
  • Declines in livestock productivity
  • Vulnerability of crop yields
  • Earlier ripening and reduction in grape quality
  • Less winter chilling for fruit and nuts
  • Increased risk of heat-related stress and disease in stock and crops
  • Migration of some pests to southern areas
  • Widening distribution and abundance of some exotic weeds.

Sounds pretty overwhelming, hey? So, let’s break it down a little, and look at what these changing weather patterns mean for various sectors of the agricultural industry.

Crop production

Agriculture is highly dependent upon the climate. Changes in the frequency and severity of floods and droughts will continue to challenge farmers. While increases in temperature and carbon dioxide can increase some crop yields, other conditions such as nutrient levels, soil moisture, and water availability must be just right. And even then, any gains in productivity in one particular crop are expected to be negated by losses in others.

A University of Melbourne study has predicted that the impacts of climate change are set to hit Aussie farmers hard. The biggest challenge for us when it comes to shifting climate, is a hotter, drier country.Extreme heatwaves will affect the dairy industry with reduced milk volumes of up to 40% likely, which will also affect cheese production. And our crops will be more vulnerable to attacks by pests.

Crops such as bananas and sugar cane that are predominantly grown in far north Queensland will be more susceptible to cyclonic damage. Crops that require pollination from bees will also be affected due to reduced pollination time, and shorter growing seasons will mean a lower yield in crops. Heat and drought are also likely to reduce the quality of grain, grapes, vegetables and fruits. By 2050, it’s anticipated that as much as 70% of Australia’s wine-growing region will be unsustainable. Say what?

Livestock and animal farming

Climate change poses major threats to animal agriculture, yet ironically, agricultural activity causes around 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. These emissions are caused through clearing land for grazing, methane produced by cows and sheep, and emissions from manure. Not to mention those that come from the processing of livestock products.

There is a complex relationship between animal agriculture and climate change, and how climate change will affect the agricultural industry long-term. But it’s safe to say that this industry is under threat.

Livestock production covers about 45% of the Earth’s surface, making it the world’s most dominant land use. Climate change is expected to severely impact livestock production due to decreasing supplies of water, lower quality of feed crop and livestock diseases.It’s been predicted that a 20% reduction in rainfall could reduce pasture productivity by 15%, and livestock weight gain by 12%, which would substantially reduce farm income.

Despite this, global demand for livestock products is expected to double by 2050. Woah!

Animal farming is heavily reliant upon feed such as wheat and barley, so obviously, any affect climate change has on the grain industry will have knock-on effects when it comes to feeding livestock.

Beef production in southern Australia will be severely threatened due to warmer and drier climates, as the cattle breeds farmed in these areas will not tolerate the heat. Vulnerability to heat stress may affect the poultry industry and lead to a poor laying rate, reduced egg weight and shell quality, reduced fertility and mortality. Lambing season and the traditional ‘spring lamb’ are threatened due to expected reductions in rainfall that will affect the nutritious pastures that lambs traditionally graze on, while pigs will also be susceptible to heat stress,, which will reduce production.

All in all, the University of Melbourne study concludes that the quality of beef, chicken and even kangaroo will suffer under new climate conditions.

Australian fisheries

Fisheries are already under stress by overexploitation and pollution. However, warming water in oceans, rivers and lakes, combined with rising sea levels and melting ice will continue to impact the biodiversity of marine animals or change species distributions. Some may adapt, but some may not be able to. Gulp!

Shifting sea currents caused by global warming mean that species may move from current locations. In addition, increased flooding and land run-off has the potential to alter ocean chemistry, making it more difficult for some species to survive. It’s still unknown how an increasingly acidic sea will affect marine life, but it’s expected that it will cause thinner shells in some crustaceans, which reduce their growth, survival and reproduction. Changing temperatures and ocean chemistry may also increase the likelihood of disease in some species.

Food availability and security

So, what does all this mean for our food supply? Will we have enough? And what will happen to the cost of food?

The quality, quantity and seasonality of Australia’s food already impacts the price of our fresh produce. For example, when Cyclone Larry destroyed 90% of North Queensland’s banana crop back in 2006, it affected supply for 9 months, increasing prices by 500%! Wow!

Typically, Australia has less than 30 days’ supply of non-perishable food and less than five days’ supply of perishable food in the supply chain at any one time. These low reserves are vulnerable to natural disasters and disruption to transport from extreme weather.

Unfortunately, Australia is projected to be one of the most adversely affected regions from climate change when it comes to agricultural production.

A report by the Climate Council predicts that “these impacts will in turn affect everyday Australian households as food prices and food availability become more volatile and affect the economies and social fabric of those communities that rely on agricultural production”.

Where to from here?

It’s clear that the future of food production, both in Australia and on a global scale, will depend upon how well we can adapt to climate change. Scientists are currently working with farmers to develop new strains of crops, and new methods of farming that will enable us to adapt to a hotter, drier climate.

However, we don’t have to sit back and let the scientists come up with all the solutions. By working together by engaging in more sustainable practices, we can all make a difference.

It may seem that your efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are small, but collectively we can have a huge impact on the planet.

Are you ready to do your bit to protect our future?

Meat & Livestock AustraliaFuture FarmersEnvironmental Protection AgencyScientific AmericanMelbourne Sustainable Society InstituteClimate CouncilScience DirectScience Direct
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