Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

It's going to be a dirty scorcher

One little snippet of changing climate and food supplies

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Last week The Climate Reality Project, run by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and his group to get meaningful policy and social action on climate, ran what they called 24 Hours of Reality: The Dirty Weather Project.

The focus was some pretty heavy weight presentations on the nasty business we'll be facing if we don't do a 180 on the climate. For one, Dr. Andrew Weaver – climate modeler at the University of Victoria, author of Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World, lead author on climate projections for the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 2007 ground-breaking report, newly minted B.C. Green Party candidate and general all-round hero when it comes to climate change – was one of the guests discussing the tar sands and Keystone Pipeline.

But the whole event was fronted on a much lighter note by a funny but disturbing parody of TV weather reporters at an undisclosed point in the future.

The banter went like this (keep in mind the tagline of "dirty" weather and the fact that The Climate Reality Project is U.S.-based so temperatures are in Fahrenheit): "Here in Des Moines we're looking at 117 today, cooling off to 106 tonight. That's f------ hot! Highs of up to 126 on into the weekend. Wow! That's gonna be a real f------ scorcher for your golf game!" I was sniggering and feeling sick to my stomach at the same time.

That "dirty" weather report kept ringing in my head as I went over the latest policy report also released last week by CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. This is an international consortium dedicated to reducing rural poverty and increasing food security and human health with 15 research centres around the world. More than 8,000 scientists and staff members work on it.

Last week's report was requested by the UN's Committee on Food Security. And while it summarizes research regarding the future of agriculture in the developing world with a warming climate, no way can or will we stand apart, morally, ethically or practically speaking, for the repercussions to our happy little Pacific Northwest world and our own food production won't conveniently end at any border.

In a nutshell, CGIAR analyzed 22 of the most important agricultural commodities and three critical natural resources in the developing world. The bottom line: The world's agricultural systems face an uphill struggle in feeding a projected nine billion to 10 billion people by 2050. And climate change is a major hurdle.

Production of the most common commodity staples — wheat, maize and rice — will be challenged by new weather patterns, as well as raising livestock and catching fish and harvesting other aquatic products. Changing temperatures, changing rainfall levels and patterns, changing diseases and pests, and the introduction of new species will all play a role.

Says the report in its introduction: "Around the world, weather patterns are shifting and farmers are scrambling to adjust as the leading edge of climate change is arriving. In quite a few places, growing seasons have expanded, in others they have contracted. Sea levels are rising and water tables are shrinking.

"For agriculture, climate change is no longer conjecture but a fact of daily life."

Of graver concern is the report's conclusion that securing and maintaining the vital levels of calories, protein and nutrients for populations around the world will be "an exceptional challenge."

Yes, some climatic changes could mean extending food production into areas and growing times previously unsuitable, but it's not enough to tip the balance favourably. As well, new hybrids able to tolerate higher temperatures can be introduced, but the report cautions they will not necessarily be able to tolerate the accompanying increased levels of pests and diseases.

One small taste of what we will be facing in our own privileged world — although caffeine addicts may not agree with me that it's not vital for human health and nutrition — are the alarm bells sounding about the world's coffee supply.

Last week media carried the conclusion from a study done by U.K. and Ethiopian researchers that 70 per cent of the world's coffee supply could be wiped out by 2080 due to climate change. It's the Arabica plant in peril. The worst-case scenario puts the wipe-out at 90 to 100 per cent; the rosiest projection is that 38 per cent of Arabica plants will be gone.

The research for this report was done by the Coffee Forest Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 2010 Kew also concluded that, after studying 4,000 species, one-fifth of the world's plants overall and one-fifth of the world's mammals are at risk of extinction.

Never mind the direct loss of food crops for the world's most vulnerable people, they will also face a sea change when they're unable to grow or raise food bound for the dinner tables of the less vulnerable that they used to sell for cash.

Remember when climate change made headlines back in 2007 when Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change?"

I've been tracking policy changes and politics since then and not much has changed. In fact, the Columbia Journalism Review reports not only less coverage of climate change in mainstream media but public fatigue about hearing about it as well.

Last year the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the largest science society in the world, which publishes Science — held its AGM in Vancouver. Seven thousand scientists from around the world attended. The theme was communication: how can scientists communicate directly with the public in a way that is meaningful and understandable?

The subtext here was how to circumvent notoriously bad news media like Fox News, which was recently analyzed by the Union of Concerned Scientists to be misleading on 93 per cent of their statements about climate change. (Surprisingly, they also found the Wall Street Journal opinion pages to be misleading 81 per cent of the time on climate change.)

Over and over, in various conference sessions I attended last year the plea arose to get the message out to the public about climate change and what we're facing so we, the people, would pressure politicians directly to get the right policies in place to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Andrew Weaver was at that conference last year, and now he's thrown his hat into the ring to be a politician himself and do the right thing. What can the rest of us do?

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who tracks local weather every day. It's been warmer than normal for weeks.

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