Climate Change is Altering What We Grow and What We Eat.

I grew up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm. It was small — one cow — but she supplied our milk and butter. It meant that as a kid, every morning and eve, I cleaned stalls and fed the farm’s menagerie of pigs, horses, cats, dogs, heifers, calves, and that one cow. I milked her too, by hand. Things were very different then with the average herd size being 20 cows. We also raised much of our own food that was preserved, filling the basement shelves with jars of vegetables, fruit and even meat. Hams hung in the stairway and potatoes piled high.

My upbringing on that small dairy farm gave me a deep appreciation for what it means to reap the edible rewards of a lot of hard work yet face the risks of failure — too little or too much rain, a surprise frost, or pests. For the last several years, I have studied the changes occurring to our food system and know that the risks of failure for farmers today are greater than ever due to a rapidly changing climate. Many farmers have adapted in remarkable ways, others are barely holding on. But all these challenges facing the stewards of our land is having a profound impact on the foods we eat.

We often hear about how climate change is causing glaciers to melt, more extreme weather and sea levels to rise, but we often overlook how food plants, from beets to bananas, are faring. Some changes to our food are subtle, some surprising, and some scary.

To thrive, plants require the right temperature, air, water, soil and sunlight. But alas, all are changing except sunlight. In short, the plants that provide us food for life are under increasing stress. This is a climate change story that must be told. We all know that it’s getting warmer — ski seasons are getting iffy and summers hotter. The warming is obvious, but this story is rich with surprises about what it means to our food.

It’s warming, and that means stress on dairy cattle. They eat less and milk production drops. Corn, wheat, and barley don’t do well when nights are too warm and nights are warming faster than days. The Great Lakes are warming and scientists report that the region’s “fruit belt” is becoming less suitable for apple, grape, cherry, and peach production and that this will worsen in coming years. Winter temperatures in the U.S., have increased twice as fast as those in the summer, and when winters are too warm, most fruit and nut trees don’t produce fruit and nuts. This is not yet a problem for the Great Lakes region but in 2017, Georgia, the peach state, had few peaches because the preceding winter was too warm. Warming winters pose a serious long-term threat to California, where two-thirds of the U.S. fruit and nut crops are grown. Pistachios there were hit hard in recent years — it’s already happening.

It’s warmer so there has been a shift to more rain and less snow. Some of the greatest decreases in snow cover (outside of lake-effect snow) in the US have occurred in the Great Lakes region. In contrast, and because of the warming of the Lakes surface water temperatures and less ice cover, lake effect snow has increased. And dry areas of the world are getting drier and wet areas, wetter. In the Great Lakes region total annual precipitation has increased 14% since 1951 and is expected to continue to increase in coming decades. Now because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, when it rains it pours. Heavy precipitation events are up 42% in the region. And since more rain is falling during intense rainfalls, the likelihood of longer dry spells in between may increase. 

And then there are intriguing tales to tell about ice. With more violent storms, hail gets tossed up into colder air over and over and each time gets a tad larger. Scientists predict dramatic increases in hailstorm damage because of bigger hail in some regions of the U.S., a story that does not bode well for many fruit crops that can be decimated in minutes. And ice melts when it gets warm. High mountain ice caps and glaciers supply melt waters to irrigate crops downstream around the world, but they are melting away. In Peru, an important source of agricultural products for the U.S. worth about $3.8 billion per year, the icecaps are predicted to be gone in a few decades.

Then there is the air, which has 50% more carbon dioxide than it should. Scientists have already demonstrated that higher levels of carbon dioxide make weeds harder to control and that plant-feeding insects eat more. When crops like wheat and corn, are grown under levels of carbon dioxide expected in coming decades, the amounts of protein, zinc and iron are reduced. In rice, B vitamins drop 17%–30%. This has serious implications, for the millions of people already on marginal diets. 

Lastly, the soil is also changing: It acts as an anchor for crop roots and is a source of nutrients and water. It also plays a huge role in modifying the Earth’s atmosphere. A healthy soil will sequester carbon, a poorly managed soil will release carbon into the atmosphere. Soil, the skin of the earth, is a living system that needs our care. But it also is under stress from misuse and being washed away by more floods and storms.

Taken together, it’s a worrisome story but one that people want to know more about. Colleagues and I conducted a national survey (US) and found that over 60% of respondent (regardless of political affiliation) are concerned about climate change impacts on food choices, they are willing to pay more for food grown with climate friendly practices, and they want to learn more about climate change impacts on their food. These responses make it clear that an audience awaits to hear the climate change and food story. A story that I hope raises awareness and action on climate change since we all eat and it’s all changing. 

Much is being done already to keep the foods we love and need on the dinner menu. Scientists worldwide are developing more climate resilient crop varieties and improving ways to help farmers deal with droughts and new pests — helping them to be climate smart. Farmers, the stewards of the land, are also doing their part by adopting practices that reduce risks to crops and improve soil health. Food industries are stepping up as well. Much progress is being made, but we have a long way to go. 

It’s time for all of us to find a greater purpose in helping to address this grand challenge. We all have a role.

This article first appeared on Post-Standard, May 13, 2021 but was updated and revised to give more focus on the Great Lakes region. 

Dive deeper into this topic by joining the Council of the Great Lakes Region’s webinar on Thursday, July 20th, where we will be joined by the author of this article, Mike Hoffmann, to further discuss how a changing climate is affecting the foods we eat using Great Lakes region-specific examples. Learn more and register by clicking HERE.

About the Author: 

Mike Hoffmann is Professor Emeritus, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and faculty fellow with the Atkinson Center for Sustainability at Cornell University. He is lead author of “Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need.” See also the book’s companion website, Our Changing Menu and his TEDx Talk, and the on-line eCornell Climate change leadership course he teaches.

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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