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The Search for a Way to “Climate-Proof” Our Natural Resources

28 August 2019

There’s no question that the climate crisis is having an impact across the globe. The planet’s average temperature has risen about 0.9ºC since the late 1800s, driven primarily by human industrial activity. Five of the hottest years on record have taken place since 2010, and of the 12 months in 2016 - the warmest year on record - heat records were broken in eight. All this poses a significant challenge for those working to manage the food system.

Designing systems that are resilient against extreme weather events and pathogen and pest threats to agriculture must centre around addressing a climate in crisis - one that will be at the root of many threats facing our planet for years to come.

How climate change threatens our natural resources 

Over the next few decades, crops will continue to face threats from both pests and pathogens as a result of climate change; with the contemporary ways of responding to those issues also becoming less effective. In regions of the United States of America where higher temperatures have caused an increase in insect populations, pesticide spray use has increased. In addition to negative side effects on pollinators and people, farmers may find that even the effectiveness of pesticides on insects themselves is reduced by higher temperatures. Increases in temperatures have been shown to lead to more severe pathogen-borne diseases in oilseed rape, cereals, and potatoes in Europe. Take aphids, for example, which are the most common transmitter of plant pathogens. Due to increasing temperatures, aphids’ winter mortality rate is decreasing, which has led to the insects becoming active up to a full month earlier in the spring and spreading diseases more quickly. 

Changes in rainfall patterns, both flood and drought conditions, can also promote pest destruction of crops. Wireworms, which damage potato crops, have been shown to rise to the surface of the soil under warmer and wetter conditions. On the flip side, in Sub-Saharan Africa, evidence suggests that changes in rainfall are already beginning to alter the migratory patterns of the desert locust, which devastates crops across Africa and the Middle East.

Furthermore, plants that survive to bear edible crops will likely see lower yields as a result of climate change, depending on where in the world they are. While Nordic countries may see yields rise by 15 percent as temperatures there increase, farmers in the south and west of Europe will likely see yields drop by over 10 percent, according to the EU Science Hub.

Climate change itself has serious implications for human food safety, as well. Foodborne pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter thrive in warmer conditions and some become more prevalent in warmer months. Warmer temperatures can also support population growth in a variety of species: insects and rodents, which can transport pathogens; mycotoxins, which are formed by some fungi that grow on crops; and ocean algal blooms that can transfer toxic substances, such as ciguatera, to fish and people that consume them.

How We Can Adapt to a Changing Climate — Both Reactively and Proactively

Protecting our natural resources from the threats posed by the climate crisis will require a variety of adaptations and innovations to our contemporary agricultural practices.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that two adaptation strategies will be necessary to respond to climate change: autonomous adaptation, meaning farmers’ responses or reactions to changing temperature or rainfall patterns; and planned adaptation, which concerns the proactive, multi-sector policies designed to better equip our agricultural systems.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that the “emissions gap,” or the difference between projected agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 and the levels necessary to keep warming below 2ºC, tops 11 gigatons of greenhouse gases. In a 2019 report, the WRI outlines several strategies that can help close the greenhouse gas emission gap, which all fall under the category of autonomous adaptation. Cutting food loss and waste by just one quarter by 2050 would get us 15 percent closer to emissions targets to keep warming below 2ºC. Limiting meat consumption to around 50 calories per person per day — a seemingly ambitious target, but actually equivalent to about 1.5 hamburgers a week — would reduce the emissions gap by half. Other strategies that can help cut emissions include improving soil- and water-quality management initiatives, restoring peatlands that have been converted for agricultural purposes back to wetland status, and converting to renewable energy sources over fossil fuels for agriculture.

Farmers can use also ‘agroecological strategies’ to autonomously adapt to climate change. Researchers writing in the journal Plant Pathology note that “enhanced diversity in cropping systems may reduce the risks of diseases that otherwise, in monoculture, would become more severe as a result of climate change.” They point to an example in Finland in which an epidemic of late blight in potato crops, already made more severe by climate change, began nine days earlier when the preceding crop was also potato, as opposed to a different crop. “This emphasizes the importance of crop rotation, including the integration of cover crops and intercropping, in reducing specific disease risks associated with expected climate change,” they conclude.

To make change, however, will need a variety of stakeholders to get involved. Startups and businesses can develop new technologies. Governments can exact policies that support, facilitate, and incentivise the strategies the WRI calls for in their report. And international bodies like the FAO are working to connect developing countries, which may be hit harder by climate change, with tools that are proving successful in other parts of the world. The FAO is also working to establish networks to share knowledge about the benefits of low-tillage agriculture, which can help protect soil, and reduce deforestation.

What You Can Do

Even if you are not a farmer nor involved in policymaking decisions, there are a number of ways you can help protect the Earth’s people and natural resources against climate change:

  • Avoid wasting food. As food decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Cutting food waste would also help feed the world without having to take up more land for agriculture.
  • Take the bus or drive sustainably. A 2017 study from Lund University ranked ditching petrol-driven cars as one of the most effective actions a person could take against climate change, cutting each person’s average yearly emissions by a quarter.
  • Encourage your elected officials to consider the people impacted by a warming planet. As days get hotter, farm workers face potentially lethal working conditions, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that avoiding climate change can displace people across borders. Therefore, labour and refugee laws have significant roles to play in responding to climate change as well.

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