Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Climate Change and Farming: How Not to Go Hungry in a Warmer World

 Climate change might hit us in the most vital place of all — the dinner plate Why do we care about climate change? 

Obviously we worry about what warming temperatures might do to the geography of the planet — particularly melting polar ice and raising global sea levels. We fear the impact that climate change could have on endangered species, as warming temperatures speed the already rapid pace of extinction for wildlife that have been pushed to the edge by habitat loss and hunting. We focus on the changing risk of extreme weather, of more powerful storms causing billions of dollars of damage in richer nations — and taking thousands of lives in poorer ones. Sometimes we're simply uneasy with idea that our actions are altering the Earth, changing the rhythms of the seasons, shifting weather patterns we've been accustomed to for as long as human beings can remember.
All of that is important — but not as important as the impact that climate change might have on the most vital function of any species: feeding itself. The human population broke the 7 billion mark late last year, and the reason that happened — and the reason we can and will keep growing, barring major changes — is that we've become amazing proficient at raising food. Our distribution is far from perfect — which is the reason the world is simultaneously home to 1 billion hungry and more than 300 million obese people — and the side effects of large-scale farming can damage the environment. But food production still remains humanity's most amazing accomplishment. 
That's why the threat that climate change could mess with agriculture is so scary — and why experts are worried that we're not stepping up to the challenge. In last week's Science, an international group of leading investigators — led by John Beddington, the chief science adviser for the British government — published a call urging policymakers to ensure that agriculture becomes a more vital part of global action against climate change. "Global agriculture must produce more food to feed a growing population," they write. "Yet scientific assessments point to climate change as a growing threat to agricultural yields and food security." In other words, the potential risks to farming are one more reason we need to reduce carbon emissions soon — and the fact that the climate is already changing, and will continue to change, means that we also need to start adapting agriculture to a warmer world immediately. More