Bloomberg — The world’s dinner tables are seeing the impact of climate change.
As cold regions become warmer, and warm places hotter still, farming and fishing are shifting. An evolving climate means big changes for people who grow, catch and rear for a living, and everyone else who buys and eats what they produce.
There are winners and losers. There are rich-world problems (less cod, more lobster) and poor (drought and pestilence). There are threats to the quality of the world’s basic staples including wheat and corn, as well as such nation-defining luxuries as Bordeaux wine and Java coffee. And whether through dearth or deluge, supply shocks can shake up prices.
As temperatures rise, the best growing conditions for many crops are moving away from the tropics, and from lower lying land to cooler climbs. Fish and other underwater catches, too, are migrating to colder seas as their habitats warm.
“The very cold-water fish that our grandparents used to catch have moved further north, which means that we now import most of the fish that we eat,” said Dr Stephen Simpson, an associate professor in marine biology and global change at Britain’s University of Exeter.
“When we go on holiday in Spain, we often eat the UK fish.”
Blessed by climate
It’s not gloom for everyone, with mostly colder northern areas benefiting so far.
“The areas where foods are grown the most efficiently are shifting,” said Jason Clay, a senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund, who has more than four decades of expertise on farming and fishing issues. The US corn belt stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas is edging toward the border with Canada, which is already growing more crops than it used to in some parts of the country, he said.
Russia is enjoying bumper harvests of wheat, the world’s most widely grown crop, partly as record temperatures boost yields. That’s adding to the global glut of grains, pushing down prices. In the US, North Dakota now has a longer growing season, while some California farmers are planting coffee. Off the coast of Maine, lobstermen have been catching more of the delicacy than ever before. While further temperature increases may go too far and erode lobster populations in coming decades, for now crustaceans are still breeding in great profundity.
English sparkling wine is winning international awards as the climate in some areas of the country begins to resemble France’s Champagne region, while Poland is growing chardonnay and finicky pinot noir varieties.
But for many, the changes are bad news.
Warmer temperatures are encouraging pests and fungus to develop. Growers in the US and Canada have suffered increased levels of poisonous mycotoxins from fungi in their crops because of drought and humidity. Coffee farmers face rising threats from pests including berry-borer beetles, while disease epidemics such as leaf rust have hit Central America, and Colombia to the south.
Extreme weather events from floods to droughts have taken their toll. In France, fickle weather has been a disaster for the vineyards of Bordeaux, with spring frosts damaging vines, and summer storms leading to grape rot in Champagne. The country’s production of wine overall hasn’t been this low in 60 years.
In California, wine country was ravaged by wildfires last year. Droughts swept across Africa, demolishing corn harvests from Ethiopia to South Africa two years ago. Brazil, the top coffee grower, has also been battling drought in the past few years that curbed crops. Researchers warn that the suitable area for the beans will shrink as temperatures rise.
“When extreme events occur, you’re in trouble. For sure, climatologists see increasing occurrence of extreme events, which is the worst for agriculture,” said Lorenzo Giovanni Bellu at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.
A matter of taste
Less immediately catastrophic is the effect on quality and flavour.
Arabic coffee beans, favoured by cafe barristers, are the most sensitive to shifts in rainfall and temperature. Trees are usually grown at high altitude, where cooler temperatures allow the fruit to ripen slowly and develop more complex flavours of acidity and sweetness.
“When temperatures rise, as has slowly been happening in many coffee producing countries for years, the warmth causes the coffee to ripen too quickly, which means less flavourful beans,” said Jamal Gawi, a climate-change consultant in Jakarta. Java coffee is among those affected, he said.
For wheat, while some regions have benefited from larger harvests, parts of Europe and the US have recently seen reduced protein in their grain (important for keeping bread airy) thanks to sudden downpours.
Even rising carbon dioxide that helps plants grow can flush out essential nutrients such as zinc and iron.
Whether through crop failures or price impact, changes in climate have serious implications for nations concentrated in equatorial and tropical regions, whose economies and people rely on agriculture more than others.
Natural disasters have cost farmers in poorer countries billions of dollars a year in lost crops and livestock, and it’s getting worse thanks to climate change. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are dependent on single crops — Ethiopia relies on coffee for a third of its export earnings and Malawi gets about half from tobacco.
Food supply shocks and surging prices have the power to displace people and destabilise governments, as riots in more than 70 countries during a crop crisis in 2007 — 2008 showed.
Nations reliant on food imports, many also in the Middle East and Africa, are vulnerable to supply upsets thousands of miles away that ripple through global markets to push up the cost of household staples. Drought in the biggest growers, from the US and Russia to Brazil, can have dramatic effects on international prices and in some cases threaten political and social unrest among exposed populations. As Europe is discovering, such desperate people can’t be contained by borders.
“There will be some winners, but I think there are going to be far more losers and many of them, if not most, are going to be in the tropics,” said Clay at the WWF.
“The bigger issue is that everybody is going to have to adjust, and the question is how fast.”