Climate change poses an imminent threat to many of the foods we love to eat — and the farmers who grow them. Here’s what you can do.
It’s autumn in the Pacific Northwest. When I visit my local supermarket, I’m immediately struck by the bold reds and yellows of the apple varieties lining the shelves. My state of Washington produces more than half of the country’s apples and, during this season, its bounty is on full display.
But as I venture farther into the store, I’m met with varieties I’m likely to find in any grocery chain across the United States. Cavendish bananas, Russet potatoes, and arabica coffee. Even with all the choices we have as American consumers, our tastes have grown relatively similar. The same is true all over the world.
Our global diet is now far less diverse than our ancestors’. Over the last century, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from fields. Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated by a mere five animal species and 12 plants, including rice, wheat, and corn, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“Whether you’re in London, Los Angeles, or Lima, you can eat sushi, curry, or McDonald’s; bite into an avocado, banana, or mango; sip a Coke, a Budweiser, or a branded bottle of water — and all in a single day,” writes Dan Saldino in his 2022 book, Eating to Extinction. “What the world buys and eats is becoming more and more the same.”
There’s a lot wrong with this model. For starters, the high-yielding crops we’ve grown to love have a tendency to strip nutrients from the soil. A field that’s planted with the same crop year after year (think corn and soy) is more susceptible to blight. Monocropping leads farmers to rely on pesticides and fertilizers to keep up with demand. And experts say this system, borne out of a desire to feed the world, now poses a problem for the conservation of biodiversity and human health.
Read more: The Superweeds Are Winning
Climate change exacerbates these vulnerabilities.
Every crop has an ideal growing temperature, and yields may decrease when the numbers creep outside of that window. A 2021 NASA study, for instance, found that while wheat may be less sensitive to climate change, corn and soy yields could significantly decline by 2030. Scientists predict that if current global warming patterns continue, corn, which is the United States’ largest crop, could see yields decrease by 24 percent by the late 2000s.
Unseasonably warm temperatures can also spur premature budding, which can result in crop losses when plants bloom outside of their natural growing season. An often-cited example occurred in Michigan in 2012, when a warm winter led cherry trees to bud prematurely, leading to $220 million in losses. Making matters worse, extreme weather events, like droughts and floods, can result in food emergencies. In late 2015 and early 2016, Ethiopia experienced widespread drought that led to crop failure. As a result, more than 10 million people in the country required food aid. Climate change-related weather also puts popular crops like arabica and robusta coffee beans, which are already susceptible to drought and disease, at risk. In the not-so-distant future, we can expect the very foods we love to eat to vanish from supermarket shelves when those varieties become extinct.
Of course, in some cases, increased exposure to carbon dioxide may help plants grow. (After all, plants rely on carbon to perform photosynthesis.) But research shows that CO2 benefits some weeds more than crops. The Third National Climate Assessment predicts that farmers will become more — not less — reliant on herbicides as temperature and CO2 levels rise. Pesticides and herbicides are associated with threats to human health, including potential impacts to our endocrine, gastrointestinal, neurological, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine systems. Studies show pesticides in many of the foods we eat.
Read more: Indoor Farming Is the Future of Agriculture
Changing the Food System, From the Inside Out
Scientists and policy makers are working on how to promote the biodiversity of our crops and secure our global food system for the next generation. Their solutions range from engineering climate-resistant varieties of plants to prioritizing more sustainable farming practices like regenerative agriculture.
At its core, regenerative agriculture is about creating a food system that works with rather than against nature. It takes an agricultural model like ours, which has evolved to mass produce a handful of varieties of species, and turns it on its head, encouraging farmers to grow complementary crops that put nutrients back into the soil while also protecting human and animal welfare. Farming this way, proponents say, promotes biodiversity — a critical step in making our food system more resilient to climate change.
“We think it is important to recognize all the living beings in a farming system — from the teeniest soil microbe to the domesticated livestock and the humans who work and live on the farm,” says Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director for the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA).
The ROA, founded by farmers and industry leaders from Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and the Rodale Institute, offers a certification for food, fiber, and personal care ingredients that builds upon the existing federal organic certification, with stringent requirements for maintaining soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Advocates of the movement say that, in addition to being less vulnerable to the climate crisis, a regenerative approach may make farms more productive, not less.
“It has been scientifically demonstrated that ecological farming systems can be more productive, can better resist drought and other manifestations of climate change, and are more economically sustainable because they use less fossil fuel,” agroecologist Peter Rosset wrote in a 2008 analysis for the Society for International Development.
The ideas aren’t new but the ROA is. It has been in existence since 2017, though its influence is expanding. To date, the coalition has certified more than 240,000 acres of land, 150 different crops, and 100 growing operations. It plans to scale its certification system in the next year, meaning that consumers are likely to see the Certified Regenerative Organic label on more and more products — everything from a bag of flour to a cotton T-shirt — in the online and brick-and-mortar stores they frequent.
Here’s what you can do if you’re interested in shopping regenerative agriculture and helping ensure the future of our food system in the face of climate change:
Some of the most innovative farms and farmers aren’t yet Certified Organic or Regenerative Organic Certified. Visit local farms or farmer’s markets and talk to the folks you meet about how they’re stewarding the land and caring for the animals they raise. Support operations that are taking a sustainable approach.
Shopping in-season not only helps support local farms, but it helps reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating the freight and fuel needed to deliver fruit and veggies to your supermarket from afar.
An increasing number of chefs are bringing attention to regenerative practices across the United States. Next time you’re craving a night out, opt for a restaurant that sources from organic and/or regenerative organic farms.
There’s a ton of information out there about the regenerative organic movement. Here are some of our favorite resources:
- What Your Food Ate, nonfiction book by David R. Montgomery
- “How the Farm Bill Affects Us All,” article by Avocado Magazine
- “Our Food System Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis,” article by The Guardian
- “Kiss the Ground,” film directed by Joshua and Rebecca Harrell Tickell
Read more: How the Farm Bill Affects All of Us
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