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How will climate change impact the food system? (Part 1)

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An exploration of how climate change may impact food system sectors on local, regional and global scales

Photo by Syuzo Tsushima

Photo by Syuzo Tsushima

At this time, it is well documented that climate change will impact our lives significantly, especially if efforts are not made to mitigate contributing factors and changes are gravitating towards higher emission scenarios. How could these changes impact our food system, on a global, regional and local scale? Projections of climate-related changes to the food system are important for everyone, because these changes will impact all sectors of the food system, from production to consumption and everything in between. All of the changes that are possible to occur in our food system depend on whether our climate change trajectory is more in line with the lower or higher emission scenarios. These scenarios predict what changes will look like with a higher level of climate change intervention and much lower or no intervention, respectively.

Production

In the Midwest region, our agricultural sector could experience notable shifts due to climate change. Due to the importance of the agricultural sector in Michigan as the second largest industry in the state, there is considerable research, including projection scenarios about how climate change will impact this significant facet of the state’s economy.

We are already experiencing some of the predicted impacts with regard to agriculture based on climate change projections. According to reports from the EPA and the Union of Concerned Scientists, these impacts include:

  • Heavy precipitation and flooding: over the last 50 years, annual precipitation has increased by 5-10 percent throughout the Midwest. Future projections have annual precipitation and the frequency of severe rainstorms increasing, thereby increasing the chances of flooding. In 2017 we have seen devastating impacts for dry bean producers due to flooding.
  • Decreased water quality in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, with harmful effects for fish and the fisheries in those lakes.
  • Increasingly hot and dry summers, which can cause decreased yield in some crops and, at a certain point, can cause crop failures in major commodity crops like corn and soybeans, along with many vegetables and fruits.
  • Higher temperatures can cause livestock heat stress, decreasing productivity in the dairy, meat and egg industries.
  • Changing rain patterns, causing wetter springs which can delay planting, and wetter falls, which can impact harvesting of certain crops.
  • Increased range for crop pests due to milder winters.
  • Unpredictable spring weather can cause orchard fruits to bloom early, posing risks for frost damage. This unpredictable weather can also cause pollinators to be less active and decrease yield in crops requiring pollination services.

Processing, packaging and storage

These facets of the food system have received a lot less attention with regard to climate change in comparison with production. However, a report entitled Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System from the USDA looks at various aspects of the food system and how they might be impacted, all to assess what the consequences on food security might be in future years. This report highlighted potential impacts to processing, packaging and storage, among other sectors. The main projections for these sectors were that temperature increases would likely impact all of these industries and how they operate. These sectors are also closely tied to production, in that they rely on food to move through their systems, and that less predictable product inventory (due to reasons listed above) may increase costs for all of these industries and be passed on to the consumer.

To continue reading about potential climate change impacts on the food system, see the second article in this series.

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