Keeping our tummies full in a warming world

Published Tuesday, May 14, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

“When’s the last time you were really hungry?” I asked my sons during a recent conversation about food.  The answer was silence, because my family and I are among the lucky.  We won the biggest lottery of all just by being born in this land of plenty, where food is abundant, easily taken for granted and wasted with impudence.

Yet food production, essential to our existence, is facing significant challenges in a warming world.  Here’s a quick overview, and what you can do about it.

Successful food production depends on a few critical factors.  Good growing temperatures.  The right amount of moisture.  Topsoil.  There’s reason for concern with all three.

Ten thousand years of agricultural experience have taught humans to grow crops in areas where the climate is best suited to their production.  But the crops we most depend on, such as wheat, corn and rice, are very sensitive to changing temperatures.  Last year’s record hot summer in the US gave a taste of what warmer temperatures from climate change might bring: thousands of heat records were set, and corn yields in particular plummeted.  Last month, the International Energy Agency warned that the target of limiting warming to 2°C is slipping out of range because of lack of action.  Current emissions trends suggest a rise of 6°C is possible – devastating to crop production as we know it.

Closely related, rainfall patterns are changing.  In Atlantic Canada, warmer air carrying much more moisture will deluge us with more intense rainfalls.  Just last fall, three consecutive storms each dumped over three inches of rain on parts of NB and NS.

And just as some places will get more rain, some will get less.  According to a new UN report, land degradation and desertification are issues in over 150 countries and an area three times the size of Switzerland is being lost annually.  (Ironically, Canada pulled out of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in March and is now the only UN member country not on board.)

Topsoil, the underappreciated medium that nurtures over 99% of our food, is under pressure too.  Globally, wind and water erosion take a heavy toll.  (Erosion is why most rivers and streams run brown in spring.)  It is disappearing forever under the asphalt, concrete and lawns of urban sprawl.  It’s said that the best land in Canada can be seen from the SkyPod of the CN Tower.  Unfortunately, much of that will never again be available for crop production.

Add it all up, toss in population growth, and it’s easy to understand why food security will be a huge issue in the coming decades.

What to do
If all this makes you uneasy, there is much you can do to take charge of your own food security:

1. Plant a garden: it’s incredible what can be grown even in a city backyard.  If you have never tried it, now is the perfect time to start.  You can get all the supplies and advice you need at your local garden center.

2. Buy a weekly food basket: community supported agriculture (CSA) is a fast-growing trend where consumers partner with local farmers and get a basket of fresh food every week.  Farmers like the guaranteed market for their produce; consumers like the constant supply of fresh, local goodness.

3. Strive to waste less: each day, Canadians waste enough food to feed a small country.  Enough said.

4. Eat better: less meat, more veggies, less processed food, more homemade food.  Better for the planet and much better for you.

5. Stock your pantry: to prevent trips to the convenience store and for the comfort of having a reserve on hand.

6. Join a co-op to support and grow businesses in your own community.

7. For the truly committed, build a root cellar to store your produce economically for extended periods.

In a prosperous country like Canada, it’s easy to become disconnected from our food supply.  But climate change and other issues would suggest it’s a good time to reconnect.