If there is one thing the people of this planet don’t need to worry about, it is whether there is enough food being produced for all 7.7 billion of us. It doesn’t get to everyone who needs it – 821 million people are undernourished, according to a new report from the United Nations about the onrushing threats to our food supply. But there is a lot of it out there.
The planet is producing more calories per person than at any time in history. Between 1961 and today alone, the supply of calories per capita increased by one third, much of it in the form of more meat and vegetable oils, the report says.
You don’t need to read the report to know this; you can see it in the estimated two billion people who are overweight or obese, and in the fact that between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of all food produced is lost or wasted – a damning sign of excess.
But all that production is taking a toll on the planet’s ability to keep feeding us. And, as the UN report says, that toll is being exacerbated by climate change. This is creating a vicious circle, where the damage caused by unsustainable farming practices is harming soil that is being further depleted by the consequences of global warming, thereby jeopardizing the world’s ability to continue producing the food it needs.
Since 1961, the amount of drylands subjected to drought has increased 1 per cent a year on average. In 2015, about 500 million people lived in areas that have experienced desertification since the 1980s, the report said.
Climate change, in the form of floods and extreme weather, is also contributing to soil erosion in low-lying coastal areas, river deltas and permafrost areas. At this point, the report says, the soil erosion rate on all farmland is at least 10 times faster than the soil formation rate.
And in a final twist, land degraded by agriculture is able to absorb less carbon dioxide, which instead is released as a greenhouse gas emission. “This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation,” the report said.
One of the report’s authors warned this week that food supplies could collapse simultaneously on different continents, causing a global calamity.
“The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” Cynthia Rosenzweig told The New York Times. “All of these things are happening at the same time.”
That’s a warning made more stark by the fact July was the warmest month ever recorded. The world’s northernmost permanently inhabited place – Alert, Nunavut – hit 21 C on July 14; the average July high for Alert is 7. Wildfires burned in Greenland.
Still, all is not lost. The report offers hope.
For one thing, a warming climate will make new land at higher latitudes and altitudes available for farming – although not at a pace to match the land being lost.
More promisingly, there is ample room within current farming and land-management practices to improve yields, preserve soil and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Many farmers in the Prairie provinces, for instance, have adapted zero-till methods, where new seeds are planted in unplowed fields. This stops the release of carbon stored in the ground and also reduces erosion.
The UN report also suggests that people change their diets by moving to more plant-based foods, the production of which requires less land and energy than the meat-based, protein-heavy diet preferred by many North Americans. This year’s new Canada Food Guide takes a step in that direction by urging Canadians, for reasons of health, not planetary salvation, to “choose protein foods that come from plants more often.”
The most critical thing, though, is that countries need to take immediate action to avoid the worst. Canada, as a leading breadbasket and home to so much arable land and water, should take up the UN’s challenge and work harder to improve farming and forestry practices.
To date, Ottawa and the provinces have taken only modest steps to reduce carbon emissions; it is a long shot that Canada will hit the targets it set in the Paris Agreement. Perhaps that’s because the ultimate consequences of climate change can often seem abstract and hard to sell.
The threat of a global food shortage, on the other hand, is something that should focus the minds of politicians and citizens alike.