Climate Change and the Food System

Written by Nicole Oveisi, Fair Farms Intern

According to a 2019 report released by the World Resources Institute, agricultural production contributes about 25% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a year. As global temperatures continue to rise, climate change will have long-lasting impacts on our food system and natural environments—an issue that requires action now in order to ensure our food system can thrive. To secure a healthy future, we must look towards climate mitigation and adaptation efforts that will curb such impacts while restoring our environment.

Climate change has already contributed to rising temperatures, air and water pollution, sea level rise, and more intense natural disasters—all of which directly impact our food system. The predominant agricultural system relies on intensive practices to yield the most amount of profits. With the meat industry requiring vast amounts of land to be converted for livestock production, deforestation and desertification globally are becoming more commonplace. Deforestation caused by cattle ranching alone releases 340 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

Source: World Wildlife Fund

With rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather events such as droughts, fires and flooding, food production has been hit hard; some estimates show global crop yields declining by 30% by 2050. According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland is home to 3,100 miles of shoreline and is the fourth most vulnerable state in the country to endure the impact of sea-level rise, noting, “Rising sea levels and increased storm intensity could have devastating and far-reaching impacts on the Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem that affect the environmental, recreational and economic benefits enjoyed by Maryland and her visitors.” Climate stressors in the state are also increasing pest populations and disease spread, and contributing to declining soil health. With the agriculture industry employing 350,000 Marylanders, climate change could have a devastating impact on job security, the local economy, and food shortages.

Source: Maryland.gov

Mitigation and adaptation efforts are being implemented by governments, NGOs, the private sector, and civil society to combat the threats of a warming planet while developing ways to thrive with diverse environmental challenges. NASA refers to mitigation as “reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere” and adaptation as “adapting to the climate change already in the pipeline.” While laws and regulations have been most notably focused on increasing renewable energy use to reduce GHG emissions from fossil fuels, the role of the agriculture industry in climate mitigation efforts has been limited. However, there is great potential to combat climate change impacts by transforming the food system from an extractive process into a self-sustaining one.

Farming practices that improve the land instead of degrade have the potential to heal much of the damage that has been done. As defined by Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that “reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” Soil is considered one of the largest carbon “sinks,” and healthier soils sequester more carbon– “Better soil management could boost carbon stored in the top layer of the soil by up to 1.85 gigatonnes each year, about the same as the carbon emissions of transport globally.” Farmers that implement soil-conscious practices, such as no-till, are playing a critical role in mitigating a climate disaster. Not only are these practices restoring the land, this type of farming is also more profitable.

Focusing on regenerative models that restore the land and mimic natural ecosystems will create more crop resilience to changing weather patterns and will reduce potential food shortages in the future. The Million Acre Challenge, in partnership with Fair Farms, aims to improve soil health in at least 1 million agriculture acres in Maryland. On such a massive scale like this, Marylanders can enjoy the benefits of a thriving environment while also leading the way towards climate resilience.