Our Climate, Our Food

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This is the third and final article of a series on Community Commons highlighting the impact of climate change on human health, communities, and economies. The series is co-authored by Chris Paterson of Community Initiatives.

We’ve seen the toll intense storms, flooding, and heat waves have on our health and communities. Complicating our ability to respond effectively to these impacts are the increasingly significant economic costs associated with climate change. As we have witnessed, local economies across the country are bearing the economic brunt of damages incurred by intense weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. A recently completed review identified the likelihood of increasing economic risks due to property loss, infrastructure repair and replacement, declining labor productivity, energy use, and shifting agricultural patterns and crop yields.

The impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity and food systems has far-reaching consequences. As noted previously, the food we have access to and consume is a major contributor to our health. And for many regions and communities, farming and food production is a major part of the economic picture.

While the U.S. agricultural system has a long history of adapting to environmental and economic threats, each county will need to adapt region-specific strategies that build resilience against increasingly frequent and severe weather patterns. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. could see $180 billion in economic losses because of drought that would largely be felt by smaller, individual farming communities.

Responding to Change – Agriculture in the Midwest

The Midwest is one of the most prolific producers of corn, soybeans, and wheat in the world. It is home to more than 520,000 farms, valued at $135.6 billion per year. This same industry is also a major contributor to global methane and nitrous oxide emissions; global emissions have almost doubled over the last 50 years.

The health and productivity of the commodity agriculture industry is directly tied to environmental conditions. Livestock, lower crop yields, agricultural workers are all impacted by rising temperatures and increasing probability of flooding – putting many farms and farming communities at risk. It is projected, that without adapting to changing conditions, the Midwest could see yields decline by 19 percent by mid-century and 63 percent by the end of the century.

Additionally, a recent report by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health underscored, yet again, how climate change threatens not just our health, but the health of our food. One of the findings from the report highlighted existing evidence that a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere is lowering the nutritional value of grains – food staples not just in the U.S. but around the world.


Changing climate conditions can have variable effects on agricultural systems. For example, the growing season has lengthened by about two weeks, resulting in an earlier spring in many areas. This can mean more profit, but also comes with unexpected frosts, rainier springs, and drier summers. Additionally, warmer summers make pollination difficult, especially for corn which can’t pollinate above 95°F. By 2050 most Americans will experience 27 to 50 days over 95°F – that’s nearly three times the average annual number over the last 30 years. And that average is expected to be even higher by the end of the century.

Additionally, the impact of climate change will look differently throughout the Midwest – dry areas will get drier and wetter areas will get wetter – meaning longer drought and more intense rainfall. Changing the time of planting, adopting specialized, resilient crop varieties, increasing irrigation, and shifting production areas are some of the ways farmers already are seeking to mitigate the economic impact of decreasing crop yields.

Broader impact on US food system

To their surprise, researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom found that the impact of climate change on food systems is 8 to 11 percent more severe in developed countries than developing ones. They suspect it could have something to do with developed countries’ focus on large monoculture farms  that are not as agile in adapting to severe weather, whereas farmers in developing countries (i.e. Africa, Latin America) focus on strategies that minimize risk.

While agricultural practitioners have a history of adapting to new conditions and challenges, our food system may have several vulnerabilities to climate change. The U.S. food system is a large integrated system that focuses on “land- and labor-efficient production of commodities in a national system characterized by monocultures, geographic specialization, and increasing concentration and consolidation in all phases of the food system”. These qualities may make it more difficult for a large-scale system that concentrates and geographically specializes its practices to quickly and effectively respond to changing conditions.

The National Research Council recognizes these and other factors as significant challenges to the U.S. food system in Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. In response to climate change, it increases not only the cost of food production for farmers, but it requires producers, processors, distributors, and retailers to adapt their role in the supply network. It’s a complicated, and ultimately costly, system that will continue to face challenges as the impact and unpredictability of climate change becomes more strongly felt.

To sustain farmers, communities, and the economy, our agricultural system must continue to anticipate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Perhaps in response, we are seeing a rise in farmer to consumer models emerge – CSAs, farmer’s markets (and a growing number that accept SNAP/WIC benefits), and food hubs are growing throughout many parts of the country. These are all strategies that may help mitigate climate change’s impact on the larger food system. By increasing people’s direct access to smaller, local systems, disruptions in far and away supply chains are less likely to have a negative effect.

Of course these changes will not look the same everywhere. Some agricultural areas will manage the changing climate better than others, in fact areas with longer (yet more unpredictable) growing seasons may find ways to thrive. The important thing to understand is how a changing climate can impact the agricultural economy, what that means for farmers and consumers, and what we can do locally to create more resilient and sustainable food systems.

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