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Think Climate Change Is a Problem for the Future? Our Food System May Feel the Heat in a Decade

The vice president of the World Bank groups says risks to agriculture are imminent.

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

The new sci-fi thriller The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future depicts a world ravaged by climate change. Decades of ignoring signs of global warming have led "to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought," and the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, a catastrophic global disaster. It's a terrifying fiction to consider—but one that, even in science fiction, seems far, far off. Collapse takes place in 2393, after all. Similarly, voters and politicians alike are prone to taking a far-off view when talking about climate change—it’s easy for some of us to put off action because we believe any effects are 50 or more years away. The incremental changes happen so slowly, it seems: an extra powerful storm here or an inch of ice melt there.

Ehat if we felt the impact of our collective actions (and inactions) relating to climate change a lot sooner—like, by 2024?

Well, that far-off sci-fi tomorrow may be here before we know it. Recently, a leading climate change observer made the scary prediction that climate change could disrupt the global food supply, endangering billions of humans, within the next decade.

“The challenges, from waste to warming, spurred on by a growing population with a rising middle-class hunger for meat, are leading us down a dangerous path,” Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, recently told the Crawford Fund 2014 annual conference in Canberra, Australia, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “Unless we chart a new course, we will find ourselves staring volatility and disruption in the food system in the face, not in 2050, not in 2040, but potentially within the next decade.”

While we're already talking about how climate change could take away our coffee and our chocolate, there's far more to this problem than higher prices for lattes and candy bars. Yields on staple crops could drop significantly, and meat prices are already on the rise, thanks to the prolonged drought in the West. Our failure to stem the tide of human environmental destruction, experts say, will hit Americans hard in the pocketbook. Food shoppers in the United States should expect a climate-induced rise in prices as a result of more extreme weather events; crop failures due to weather warming that influences pests, diseases, and weeds; and related effects on fisheries and livestock. While we’ll all feel the pain at the checkout, food price increases will disproportionately affect the nearly 15 percent of U.S. households that are food insecure, says Dr. Linda Berlin, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Vermont.

“Americans who will be most negatively affected by these changes are those with the least disposable income, i.e., little ability to absorb the extra costs,” she says.

Kyte—who oversees work on climate change adaptation and mitigation and climate finance taking place across World Bank Group institutions—pointed to a number of factors that are exacerbating the oncoming food crisis, including a rising demand for meat worldwide, land clearing and increased greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, and threats to low-lying areas from rising sea levels. Air temperatures could increase 2 degrees by the mid-2030s, she says, which could cut cereal yields by 20 percent worldwide and 50 percent in Africa.

Kyte’s analysis coincides with the draft of an upcoming United Nations report, released in August, in which the international panel of scientists expresses 95 to 100 percent certainty that human activity is the primary cause of global warming. Additionally, according to the report, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, despite far-reaching political efforts to reduce them. Between 2000 and 2010, emissions grew at 2.2 percent annually, up from 1.3 percent annual growth between 1970 and 2000.

Food shortages have led to riots in other countries, and that kind of hunger-related violence tends to be cast as an "over-there" sort of problem. But that's partly because of our “giant safety net program—SNAP (food stamps)—which most countries don’t have,” as Stanford professor Rosamond Naylor told several hundred scientists and California Gov. Jerry Brown last December.

With $8.6 billion cut from the program in the 2014 farm bill, that safety net isn't faring all that well.

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