Climate change impacts, and is impacted by, food production: a paradox

As emphasized in my previous post, there is growing scientific consensus that the world’s climate is changing (1). Though the timing and extent of such changes are likely to vary from one place to another, climate change undeniably impacts food production and health worldwide. With extreme temperatures, droughts, and floods, overall crop productivity decreases while food scarcity and malnutrition increases (2–5). Without investment in climate change adaptation, food-related deaths will far exceed all other climate-related human health effects (6).

But, does food production also impact climate change?

In the Canadian context, most of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the energy sector (81%), with the agriculture sector contributing 8%. However, considering other emissions of the food system (e.g. manufacturing inputs, transportation, disposal of food waste), total emissions add up to nearly 30%. These emissions generally come from on farms, either from livestock manure or from the fields themselves. Some good news though –  since the last decade, there was a net decrease of 2.2% in GHG emissions despite Canada’s rapid economic growth. Still, Canada represents approximately 1.6% of total global GHG emissions and is one of the highest per capita emitters (8).

Why is this the case? 

Let us not ignore socio-economic factors. A big driver of emissions is the fact that the Canadian agriculture and agri-food system (AAFS) is a “complex and integrated supply chain that includes input and service suppliers, primary producers, food and beverage processors, food retailers and wholesalers, and foodservice providers” (9). The activities along this supply chain generate significant economic benefits at both the national and provincial levels. In 2014, the AAFS generated $108.1 billion, accounting for 6.6% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). Canadians also must eat, and spend a lot of money on food, around $195.7 billion in 2014.

How is Canada responding to this paradox?

Although climate change presents a dilemma to food production, and food production to climate change, there are unique opportunities for the Canadian food and farming sector. In May 2015, Canada indicated its intent to reduce GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In December 2015 at COP 21, Canada, alongside the countries of the world, reached an ambitious and balanced agreement to fight climate change. To realize this goal, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, a comprehensive plan, was created in December 2016 to reduce emissions across all sectors of Canada’s economy, as well as to stimulate clean economic growth, and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. The Government of Canada is currently also developing a National Food Policies, and various organizations are investing in research to create climate-resilient food and farming systems that use far less energy and produce far fewer greenhouse gases. Such initiatives are important in ensuring that our food systems are addressing climate changing, and not simply contributing to it.

References

  1. IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer. 2014. 151 p.
  2. Lake IR, Hooper L, Abdelhamid A, Bentham G, Boxall ABA, Draper A, et al. Climate change and food security: Health impacts in developed countries. Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(11):1520–6.
  3. Wheeler T, von Braun J. Climate change impacts on global food security. Science [Internet]. 2013;341(6145):508–13. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23908229
  4. Schmidhuber J, Tubiello FN. Global food security under climate change. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A [Internet]. 2007;104(50):19703–8. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/50/19703.short
  5. Myers SS, Smith MR, Guth S, Golden CD, Vaitla B, Mueller ND, et al. Climate Change and Global Food Systems: Potential Impacts on Food Security and Undernutrition. Annu Rev Public Health [Internet]. 2017;38(1):259–77. Available from: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044356
  6. Springmann M, Mason-D’Croz D, Robinson S, Garnett T, Godfray HCJ, Gollin D, et al. Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: A modelling study. Lancet. 2016;387(10031):1937–46.
  7. Environment and Climate Change Canada. National Inventory Report 1990-2015: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada – Executive Summary [Internet]. 2017. Available from: https://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/default.asp?lang=En&n=662F9C56-1
  8. World Resources Institute. Climate Analysis Indicators Tool [Internet]. 2017. Available from: http://cait.wri.org/
  9. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. An Overview of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food System 2016. [Internet]. 2016. Available from: http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/publications/economic-publications/an-overview-of-the-canadian-agriculture-and-agri-food-system-2016/?id=1462288050282

Photo credit: geoffreybr via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


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