Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Screw the math, the scorched farmland is terrifying

Connecting the dots between climate change and your groceries

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I'm on the e-list for Bill McKibben and his worthy outfit, 350.org. If you were of reading age then, you might remember the stir created by Bill's first book, The End of Nature, when it came out in 1989.

On my shelf sits a tatty first edition. An illustration of planet Earth with a firey penumbra graces the cover, but what strikes me is how young and hopeful Bill looks in his photo on the back flap. He's been working awfully hard these 30-some years and no doubt his determination has bordered despair over our little progress on climate change, as his book is the first on the topic for a general audience.

In one of the many lines that could have been written today, he quotes a 1957 paper by scientists at California's Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who were discussing the rising CO2 levels resulting from "millions of smokestacks, furnaces and car exhausts" and the oceans' warming.

"Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past, nor be repeated in the future." Hello, people? That was a clarion call from 1957...

So when I saw the first line of 350.org's latest email last week (Dear friends: Last week, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece of mine that I think may be the most important writing I've done since The End of Nature...) I at once stopped what I was doing and read.

To share the gist of it, here's the opener to McKibben's Rolling Stone piece, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math".

"If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere — the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe..."

The rest of article, which has pretty much gone viral, goes on with equally disturbing "math."

I remember tracking those 3,315 high-temperature records at the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) website, as well as the 15,000 record highs that were set in March in the U.S. (7,755 daytime records, 7,517 nighttime records). A good chunk of them were in America's corn belt.

The other terrifying bit of math you can find on the NOAA site is that as of July 3, 56 per cent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing drought conditions which, for the most part, have continued.

According to the July 27 Guardian, "The worst drought in a generation is hitting farmers across America's corn belt far harder than government projections and forcing them to a heart-breaking decision: harvest what's left of their shrivelled corn or abandon their entire crop."

Shrivelled or not, corn is a foundation of our food supply. Dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens all eat corn and right now a lot of American farmers who raise livestock are killing them because they can't afford the high feed prices. (It takes, on average, seven kilograms of grain to generate one kilogram of beef.)

Even our own little chicken supplier just sent out an apologetic note over her higher prices. Last week grain feed went up another $37 a ton after a $22 increase a month ago. That doubles her chicken feed price from six years ago. Bet your wages haven't doubled in six years.

Corn is also the basis for cornstarch, corn oil, and a lot of the sugars that make their way into processed food in the form of glucose and high fructose corn syrup. Many of these foods are the most affordable calories for people with low incomes.

While the U.S. harvest is still expected to be relatively good due to the record amount of corn planted — the most in 75 years — the shortfall due to the drought along with stock market speculation on corn futures will drive up prices. Soybeans, which are increasingly sourced when corn supplies run amok, will be affected as well.

Add to the mix drought conditions in South America, especially in Brazil where soybeans are grown, along with flash floods in Russia, which are threatening this year's wheat harvest — again.

Two things make the perspective keener. Rice, wheat and corn make up two-thirds of the world's food consumption. Plus we've all seen in 2008 and again in 2010 the social and political upheavals that arise when food shortages and rising prices press those who can least afford it. That includes the Arab spring, which started with bread riots.

As if echoing McKibben's piece, another interesting bit of math came out this week. James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and author of Storms of My Grandchildren, another well-thumbed favourite on my shelves, has done statistical analysis confirming that these searing droughts and other intense weather patterns aren't random or normal. (According to the reinsurance company, Munich Re, the U.S. alone experienced 90 natural disasters in the first six months of 2012 that amounted to $14.6 billion in economic losses.) They can't be anything other than results of human-caused climate change.

All this reminds me of more stats that came up when I was at the World Conference for Science Journalists in London three summers ago. A University of Cambridge scientist doing climate research coolly and dispassionately laid out two facts that still ring in my ears.

One: if we wanted to stabilize the climate, we needed to remove one-third of all the carbon being pumped into in the Earth's atmosphere as of that hot July day in 2009. But carbon content has gone up every year since.

Two: the world's oceanic and atmospheric mechanisms are so huge and so slow-moving that the climate change effects we feel now are the result of carbon spewed into the atmosphere in the 1970s.

You do the math.

And when you get a minute in your busy and ever-warmer life, stand up and support our leaders and policymakers who have the guts to get carbon out of our atmosphere.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's never liked a scorcher.