Something I often note in the ongoing discussion about the climate emergency is that many/most people seem to be underestimating the importance of a steady, predictable climate for the growing of food for 8 billion humans on the Earth. People do not grasp the fragility of agricultural systems nor do they grasp the resources required to grow, process and ship that food to 8 billion humans. It’s not something the media discusses unless it becomes a problem.

I’ll get back to the issue of food production in a moment.

I suspect that for those of us who have been thinking about this for a longer period of time, it’s more of an issue as we’ve allowed ourselves time to play out the details of various possible scenarios. But a large portion of the public have largely tuned out climate change until recently and even now I suspect many just dwell on it briefly, rarely digging into the details. For some it’s only just starting to click that climate change has quickly turned into a climate emergency. And even so, many are only getting that from increasing frequency of headlines and not real investigation into details or thoughtful consideration.

In glossing over the real world effects that are happening now or likely to happen in the not too distant future, many people have just jumped to making statements in which they seem to embrace the darkest possibilities of what’s to come.

It almost seems like until recently the popular opinion was, oh, yeah, the climate is a problem but we’ll fix it with technology like electric cars. Basically, a kind of hand-wavy dismissal. And now, suddenly, the popular consciousness has jumped from casual dismissal to it’s an emergency that it is too late to solve.

In either case the convenient implication is that they have no reason to act. In scenario one of casual acceptance, a techno fix would present itself. In scenario two, ok, we’re now in a climate emergency the shrug-off is well, it’s too late, nothing to be done.

Let’s get back to the question of food production. The past two to three years we’ve seen far more media coverage of the many and increasingly extreme weather events caused by climate change. From wild fires to extended drought to extreme flooding. We’re now seeing the headlines constantly as we should.

But what is too rare are the stories that delve into the real-world implications of these events. Beyond the video of the events or the immediate aftermath, what are the mid and long-term effects? And, more specifically for this post, how is weather affecting our ability to grow food? The food system in general could do with far more attention from the media so that the public understands the full production cycle as well as sources and distribution.

In general the public seems ignorant of how food gets to the shelves of their grocery stores. It’s just assumed that food will be there. The covid pandemic provided a brief glimpse into what a mild supply chain disruption would look like. But that was just a glimpse at a temporary disruption.

Consider some of the variables that can disrupt farmers' ability to produce a crop in any given year. Just a tiny sampling:

  • Winter temperatures can impact the ability of fruit and nut trees to reliably produce a harvest. Often referred to as chill hours, a certain number of days below a certain temperature are required for trees to go dormant.
  • Late spring frosts can damage or destroy plants or the flowers of trees, bushes or plants thus reducing or eliminating production.
  • Too much rainfall in the spring can delay and disrupt when a farmer can plant seed for a crop. Too little rainfall after seed is planted can delay germination. Too much can cause rot of seed or young plants.
  • Too much rainfall during the growing season can cause more disease. Too little and plants will die or underproduce.
  • Or, a one-two punch, a period of drought followed by a period of excessive rain. First plants are stressed by too little water and then become water logged inducing growth of disease.
  • In late summer and early fall when crops are to be harvested farmers need to be able to operate tractors in fields. Too much rain can inhibit this.

The above is just a tiny glimpse of the weather related variables that farmers contend with in planting, growing and harvesting crops. These are problems even when the climate is relatively stable. Global warming is increasing the extremes of drought and flooding as well as reducing the predictability of frost dates, growing zones and is, in general, increasing the probability of lower food yields.

It’s important to also consider that the industrial agricultural system that is the basis of feeding 8 billion humans and is the primary mode of global food production, is built upon a foundation of fossil fuels. Fertilizers and pesticides along with the mechanized systems on fields as well as after harvest processing, shipping, etc. all contribute carbon to the atmosphere.

Not only that, industrial agriculture contributes to the ongoing, catastrophic biodiversity crisis.

Humans v nature: our long and destructive journey to the age of extinction

Although the debate is far from settled, it appears ancient humans took thousands of years to wipe out species in a way modern humans would do in decades. Fast forward to today and we are not just killing megafauna but destroying whole landscapes, often in just a few years. Farming is the primary driver of destruction and, of all mammals on Earth, 96% are either livestock or humans. The UN estimates as many as one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.

It’s the last day of 2023 and we humans are at a crossroads. We’re in the midst of many inter-dependent crises that are leading us to a future that is difficult to imagine and comprehend. Our ability to feed 8 billion humans should no longer be taken as a given and the human population is still rising. Predictably there will be a crash and we shouldn’t act surprised when that crash happens.