Climate models suggest global food system crisis at hand; dust bowl scenarios now locked in.

We know from the National Climate Assessment that climate disruptions to agriculture over the past 40 years has increased and, will only worsen as the climate crisis continues to unfold.

Drought and flooding will increase, and heatwaves will come earlier, be more frequent and, last longer threatening the lives of agricultural workers and livestock alike.

Multiple breadbaskets can fail if two or more of them experience extreme climate conditions at the same time. These conditions can shock the entire global food system, a devastating reality with devastating consequences to our ability to survive as we transition to a new normal of known and unknown impacts.

One of the topics mentioned in the Assessment is the threat of pests to food crops. I found this most interesting as it not as well known as heatwaves and erratic rainfall.

Weeds, insects, and diseases already have large negative impacts on agricultural production, and climate change has the potential to increase these impacts. Current estimates of losses in global crop production show that weeds cause the largest losses (34%), followed by insects (18%), and diseases (16%).36 Further increases in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns will induce new conditions that will affect insect populations, incidence of pathogens, and the geographic distribution of insects and diseases.15,37 Increasing CO2 boosts weed growth, adding to the potential for increased competition between crops and weeds.38 Several weed species benefit more than crops from higher temperatures and CO2 levels.28,31

One concern involves the northward spread of invasive weeds like privet and kudzu, which are already present in the southern states.39 Changing climate and changing trade patterns are likely to increase both the risks posed by, and the sources of, invasive species.40 Controlling weeds costs the U.S. more than $11 billion a year, with most of that spent on herbicides. Both herbicide use and costs are expected to increase as temperatures and CO2 levels rise.41 Also, the most widely used herbicide in the United States, glyphosate (also known as RoundUp™ and other brand names), loses its efficacy on weeds grown at CO2 levels projected to occur in the coming decades.42 Higher concentrations of the chemical and more frequent sprayings thus will be needed, increasing economic and environmental costs associated with chemical use.

Climate change effects on land-use patterns have the potential to create interactions among climate, diseases, and crops.37,43 How climate change affects crop diseases depends upon the effect that a combination of climate changes has on both the host and the pathogen. One example of the complexity of the interactions among climate, host, and pathogen is aflatoxin (Aspergillus flavus). Temperature and moisture availability are crucial for the production of this toxin, and both pre-harvest and post-harvest conditions are critical in understanding the impacts of climate change. High temperatures and drought stress increase aflatoxin production and at the same time reduce the growth of host plants. The toxin’s impacts are augmented by the presence of insects, creating a potential for climate-toxin-insect-plant interactions that further affect crop production.44 Earlier spring and warmer winter conditions are also expected to increase the survival and proliferation of disease-causing agents and parasites.

Insects are directly affected by temperature and synchronize their development and reproduction with warm periods and are dormant during cold periods.45 Higher winter temperatures increase insect populations due to overwinter survival and, coupled with higher summer temperatures, increase reproductive rates and allow for multiple generations each year.46 An example of this has been observed in the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubialis) which produces one generation in the northern Corn Belt and two or more generations in the southern Corn Belt.47 Changes in the number of reproductive generations coupled with the shift in ranges of insects will alter insect pressure in a given region

Nafeez Ahmad writes an excellent piece in Medium on a new report from Surge Intelligence, an investigative journalism site. “That report comes from climate-risk data firm Four Twenty Seven, affiliated to one of the world’s three biggest credit ratings agencies Moody’s”.  

The ‘locked in’ impacts of climate change are bound to produce “severe” impacts on societies over the next decades, according to new research sponsored by one of the world’s biggest financial agencies. Among those impacts, the degradation of global freshwater supplies in particular threatens to destabilise the global food system. Historic carbon emissions appear to have made it inevitable that by the end of this century, some of the world’s most important agricultural producers will experience conditions similar to the ‘dust bowl’, the worst human-induced ecological disaster in American history.

Among the physical impacts identified, the most alarming includes increasing of water scarcity in areas of southern Europe, the Mediterranean, southwest United States and southern Africa. By the end of century those regions are now bound to experience “10 to 20 percent reductions in dry season rainfall, reductions equivalent to the two decades surrounding the American ‘dust bowl.’”

Nik Steinberg, Director of Analytics of Four Twenty Seven and author of the firm’s new climate risk report, told me that these conditions are now inevitable. They will occur as “an effect of committed warming” that is “effectively locked in and expected to occur by 2100, regardless of any mitigation outcomes before then.”

The Four Twenty Seven report bases some of its analysis of water stress on data from a new tool released in November, Aqueduct Food, created by the World Resources Institute. Data from the new tool — which was funded by Cargill, the world’s largest food producer by revenues — reveals that by 2040 as much as 40 percent of all irrigated crops will face acute water stress.

This could impact a number of major crops. Sara Walker, who leads WRI’s global water quality programme, told me that rice, wheat and maize will be significantly affected.

Some 70 percent of rice production and one third of wheat is irrigated. “By 2040, we predict 72 percent of wheat production will face extremely high water stress,” said Walker. In China, some three quarters of maize production are irrigated, and by 2040, as much as 80 percent of irrigated maize is expected to face “extremely high water stress.”

This in turn could dramatically impact food availability around the world, as an estimated 90 percent of the global population lives in countries which import over four-fifths of their staple food crops from regions that irrigate crops by depleting groundwater.

In 2010, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) found that nearly all of the United States (except mid-Atlantic states and the northeast), along with the south of the UK, parts of northern Europe, much of southern Europe, and Australia, could face severe dryness, approaching “extreme drought” conditions, toward 2040. By 2100, on our current emissions trajectory such conditions would worsen and extend to much of the planet.

The NCAR model was corroborated by a Potsdam Institute study published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2013, which found that “the combination of unmitigated climate change and further population growth will expose a significant fraction of the world population” to “chronic or absolute water scarcity.”

If global average temperatures rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius, the number of people living under “absolute water scarcity” (less than 500 cubic metres per capita per year) would increase by 40 percent, and according to some models, more than 100 percent.

Nafeez emphasizes, throughout the article, that the carbon humanity has been spewing into the atmosphere for the past 200 years is locked in. 

International Institute For Applied Systems Analysis writes on the risk of multiple breadbaskets failing to produce cereals at the same time.

Climate change is not just resulting in a steady increase in temperatures, but also in an increased frequency and severity of extreme climatic events, like droughts, heat waves, and floods. These extreme conditions are particularly damaging for agriculture. Climate variability is responsible for at least 30% of the annual fluctuations in worldwide agricultural yield. Under “normal” climatic conditions, the global food system can compensate for local crop losses through grain storage and trade. However, it is doubtful whether the current system is resilient to more extreme climatic conditions.

In a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, IIASA researcher Franziska Gaupp and colleagues looked at the risk of simultaneous breadbasket failures due to climatic extremes, and how the risk has changed over time. “Climatic connections between global phenomena such as the El Niño Southern Oscilliation (ENSO) and regional climate extremes such as Indian heatwaves, or flood risks around the globe pose a risk to the global food system,” notes lead author Gaupp. “Climatic shocks to agricultural production contribute to food price spikes and famine, with the potential to trigger other systemic risks, including political unrest and migration. This analysis can provide the basis for a more efficient allocation of resources to contingency plans and strategic crop reserves that would enhance the resilience of the global food system.”

The study looks at climatic and crop yield data for the main agricultural regions within the highest crop producing countries by mass from 1967 to 2012. The analysis shows that there has been a significant increase in the probability of multiple global breadbasket failures for particularly wheat, maize, and soybeans. For soybeans, for example, the implications of crop failure in all major breadbaskets associated with climate risk would be at least 12.55 million tons of crop losses. This exceeds the 7.2 million tons of losses in 1988–1989, one of the largest historical soybean production shocks.

On a global scale, there are both negative and positive correlations between the world’s breadbaskets and climatic dependence. Precipitation-based risks for soybean breadbaskets in India and Argentina are negatively correlated. This means that heavy rainfall in India will negatively affect the local soybean harvest, but this can be mitigated by imports from Argentina – in this way, crop losses can be balanced out.

On the other hand, there is a positive correlation between the maximum temperature in the EU and Australia, for example. The risk of increasing temperatures in Australia due to climate change could affect the amount of wheat they are able to export to the EU. This could then place additional pressure on the EU in case of drought during the wheat season.

National Geographic weighs in on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) most recent report. 

The Special Report on Climate Change and Land warned that a food crisis looms, especially in tropical and sub-tropical regions, if carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions go unchecked. Rising temperatures may also reduce the nutritional value of crops and will significantly reduce crop yields, the report said.
Extreme weather events have already increased in size and intensity and are playing a role in food price spikes in recent years, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC Special Report and a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Extensive spring flooding in the U.S. Midwest this year led to extremely late planting of corn and soy crops, reducing potential yields. Drought wilted rice fields in Thailand and Indonesia, and scorched sugar cane plantations and oilseed crops in India.
Record-breaking heat waves in Europe this summer have affected many crops, including an expected 13 percent decline in French wine production.
“The potential for failure of multiple bread basket regions is increasing,” says Rosenzweig in a press conference from Geneva.

Bread basket regions are places that produce large quantities of grains like the U.S. High Plains, or that produce large volumes of rice, such as Southeast Asia.

Jason Hickel writes in Foreign Policy on an agriculture feedback loop that most people are unaware of. 

Ask people to name the biggest dangers posed by climate breakdown, and most will start listing off extreme weather events. Destructive hurricanes, towering storm surges, deadly heat waves, flash floods, and wildfires. This is hardly surprising, given how our image-oriented media system has covered the climate crisis. Extreme weather events give us something concrete to point to. We can see them happening in real time, and anyone who’s paying any attention at all can tell that they’re getting worse.

But while extreme weather poses a real threat to human societies (consider what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico), some of the most worrying aspects of climate change are much less obvious and almost even invisible. A new 1,400-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a case in point. It explores the impacts of climate breakdown on the most fundamental, even intimate feature of human civilization—our food system.

In Iraq, Syria, and much of the rest of the Middle East, droughts and desertification will render whole regions inhospitable to agriculture. Southern Europe will wither into an extension of the Sahara. Major food-growing regions in China and the United States will also take a hit. According to warnings from NASA, intensive droughts could turn the American plains and the Southwest into a giant dust bowl. Today all of these regions are reliable sources of food. Without urgent climate action, that will change. As David Wallace-Wells reports in The Uninhabitable Earth, scientists estimate that for every degree we heat the planet, the yields of staple cereal crops will decline by an average of about 10 percent. If we carry on with business as usual, key staples are likely to collapse by some 40 percent as the century wears on.

Under normal circumstances, regional food shortages can be covered by surpluses from elsewhere on the planet. But models suggest there’s a real danger that climate breakdown could trigger shortages on multiple continents at once. According to the IPCC report, warming more than 2 degrees Celsius is likely to cause “sustained food supply disruptions globally.” As one of the lead authors of the report put it: “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing.”

There is a troubling irony here. Climate change is undermining global food systems, but at the same time our food systems are a major cause of climate breakdown. According to the IPCC, agriculture contributes nearly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, it’s not just any kind of agriculture that’s the problem here—it’s specifically the industrial model that has come to dominate farming over the past half-century or so. This approach relies not only on aggressive deforestation to make way for large-scale monoculture, which alone generates 10 percent of global greenhouse gases; it also depends on intensive plowing and heavy use of chemical fertilizers, which is rapidly degrading the planet’s soils and in the process releasing huge plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A Grim New Definition of Generation X

People born in the 1960s may be the last human beings who will get to live out their full actuarial life expectancies.

“Climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat” to humanity, warns a recent policy paper by an Australian think tank. Civilization, scientists say, could collapse by 2050. Some people may survive. Not many.

Some dismiss such purveyors of apocalyptic prognoses as hysterics. To the contrary, they’re Pollyannas. Every previous “worst-case scenario” prediction for the climate has turned out to have understated the gravity of the situation. “Paleoclimatologists have shown that past warming episodes show that there are mechanisms which magnify its effects, not represented in current climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Paris Accords,” reports The Independent. It’s probably too optimistic to assume that we’ll make it to 2050.

Gives new meaning to Generation X.

Millennials and the children we call Generation Z face the horrifying prospect that they will get stuck with the tab for humanity’s centuries-long rape of planet Earth, the mass desecration of which radically accelerated after 1950. There is an intolerably high chance that today’s young people will starve to death, die of thirst, be killed by a superstorm, succumb to a new disease, boil to death, asphyxiate from air pollution, be murdered in a riot or shot or blown up in a war sparked by environmentally related political instability long before they survive to old age.