Future Reliance On Fossil Fuels Could Put Unprecedented Stress On Food Systems - Modern Farmer

Future Reliance On Fossil Fuels Could Put Unprecedented Stress On Food Systems

New research paints a harrowing picture of a drought-stricken planet.

Co-occuring droughts could threaten global food security.
Photography by JoeyPhoto, Shutterstock.

Farmers and ranchers are no strangers to drought. Over the past few years, parched ground has been found everywhere from California and Texas to Iowa and South Dakota. 

On Monday, the New York Times reported that the megadrought in the American Southwest has become so severe it’s now the driest two decades the region has experienced in at least 1,200 years. And, according to a recent zzz analysis of federal crop insurance payments, drought-related insurance costs have jumped by more than 400 percent since 1995. 

With human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels, contributing to a warming planet, extreme climate events are becoming more prevalent, too. When burned for energy, coal, crude oil and natural gas emit large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, driving up global temperatures. 

[RELATED: Western Drought Forces Farmers to Make Tough Decisions]

New research published in Nature Climate Change looks at what could be in store for global food systems if countries continue to rely on fossil fuels throughout the rest of the 21st century.

The paper, which describes “unprecedented stress” on food and water security in the decades ahead, focused on how severe droughts occurring in different regions at the same time would impact the global food supply. The researchers looked at climate, agricultural and population growth data to make their projections based on 10 regions around the world that receive the majority of their rainfall from June to September. These places also have high variability in monthly summer precipitation. 

Researchers projected a 40-percent increase in simultaneous events by 2050 and a 60-percent increase by the late 21st century. Researchers say this translates to roughly 120 million people facing exposure to drought each year by 2100, with a ninefold increase to agricultural land being impacted by it as well.

Deepti Singh, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Washington State University’s School of the Environment, says it’s difficult enough when one region is hit by a severe weather event. But it’s an entirely different challenge when several regions experience environmental stressors, including drought, in tandem. Singh says the impacts could include increased volatility in global food prices, which would impact food access and exacerbate food insecurity, especially in areas that are already vulnerable.

“Our emergency management resources are limited. Our international aid is limited and so having multiple disasters can impact our ability to effectively respond to extreme events,” Singh says. “Not only that, but a shock in one region can have cascading effects because the food network is interconnected. We depend on trade for food and resources from different countries.” 

The findings come off the heels of another report from the independent watchdog Climate Action Tracker. The organization found not a single G20 country is in line with its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that meet its Paris Climate Accord pledges. Together, G20 countries are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s emissions. 

The agreement had countries commit to containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050. In the Paris Agreement, more than 190 countries agreed to limit the increase in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Scientists have said 2 degrees Celsius is a critical threshold for many of the Earth’s ecosystems, and is one that would also cause more catastrophic weather events.

[RELATED: Can We Fix the Global Food System by 2045?]

The elevated risk of simultaneous droughts highlighted in the researchers’ findings amounts to a warming climate combined with a projected 22-percent increase in the frequency of warm El Nino and cold La Nina events—otherwise known as El Nino Southern Oscillation. These El Nino Southern Oscillation fluctuations, which occur within the ocean’s atmospheric system, have been documented to alter weather patterns and trigger extreme conditions. 

Projections show that nearly 75 percent of future compound droughts will coincide with irregular, but recurring, periods of climatic variation in the world’s oceans. Researchers say this means geographical regions that are already facing drought-related challenges will continue to experience this, but with greater severity as temperatures also rise with reliance on fossil fuels.  

In the past, such conditions have been a catalyst for some of the greatest environmental disasters in history. As an example, the report points to a number of droughts that took place in Asia, Brazil and Africa during 1876-1878, which led to coinciding crop failures and famines that killed more than 50 million people. 

The study indicated North and South America are more likely to experience compound droughts in contrast to the majority of agricultural land that is generally projected to become wetter. Within North America, Singh says,  central and eastern regions of the continent are areas of concern. This could not only have localized impacts but also internationally as the US is heavily relied upon as an exporter of grains and corn. 

Researchers intend to build off the recent study with additional research that would attempt to understand indirect impacts of drought. This, for example, could include looking at the droughts’ economic impact on other countries highly dependent on imported food sources. This, they say, will be able to provide a more complete scenario to allow for planning that will help minimize future risks.

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