We must adapt how we grow our food in a climate-impacted world

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This week’s release of a new report from the United Nations on climate change impacts is a stark reminder of global risk to food production under a climate-impacted world. The report makes clear that critical action is needed around the globe now to secure our food systems even as we work to lower emissions and forestall even greater impact.   

Yes, we must double down on efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, we must address the threats that are already baked into our warming world. The new report makes clear that we are not doing nearly enough to adapt to changes like climate-driven droughts, floods and severe weather events. But even more alarming is how these new realities will impact food systems regionally and globally. To thrive in the future we must adapt now.  

Climate change will impact our ability to feed a growing population. While no corner of the world is safe from impact, our most vulnerable populations are bearing the greatest burden. We have the tools to drive necessary shifts. Some are already pressing forward.   

Farmers in the small Indian village of Kandukurlapalli could tell you that adaptation works. Like food producers in pockets around the world, these farmers are changing what they plant and how they farm, growing crops that fare better in drier conditions while reducing emissions and waste. The U.N.’s report makes clear that we must build on these practices and bring that spirit of adaptation to a global scale and across all our food systems — be that on land or in the sea.  

As our oceans continue to warm, fish are migrating to deeper and cooler waters, putting strain on local industries and communities that have relied on them for generations. Work is already underway in many places to adapt management systems to these new realities. And soon, our crops will need to migrate too — by some estimates as early as 2030 — as climate change makes currently productive land less suitable for growing food.  

 We already have solutions that can make our food systems more resilient. Planting cover crops in fields that farmers would otherwise lay bare can make soils spongier, helping them better withstand extreme weather from heavy rain to drought. And as weather patterns become less reliable, planting more diverse and less water-intensive crops can alleviate the impact of drought while protecting farmers’ bottom lines and even reducing the likelihood of famine. These adaptations are real, science-based strategies that are already benefitting individual farmers and their communities in places around the world. Now, governments, NGOs and private industry must work together to bring these adaptations to scale so we can all benefit.  

That’s why the Environmental Defense Fund is bringing adaptation to the climate fight’s front lines. In India, we’re working with farmers and scientists to change how rice fields are flooded, making one of the world’s most important crops more resilient while producing higher yields. In the American West, we partnered with NASA, Google, and the Desert Research Institute to give U.S. farmers and water managers groundbreaking new satellite data that will help them conserve water and adapt to a shrinking Colorado River. And across the world, we’re working to transform the farm financial system so that cutting agricultural emissions and building resilience is as good for farmers’ bottom lines as it is for those they feed. We are also working with fishing communities around the world to put in place climate-resilient fisheries management strategies.   

Of course, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report makes clear that we can’t adapt our way out of climate change. We must also work to stabilize our climate by dramatically reducing emissions from food production and embracing natural climate solutions that store carbon. This includes unglamorous innovations like smarter manure management, which could cut agricultural methane emissions, slow warming and buy us critical time to reduce other emissions and adapt. We must also work against the encroachment of agriculture into forests and grasslands vital to capturing and storing atmospheric carbon. But the limitations of adaptation only make it clearer: The time for incrementalism is over. We need to fundamentally transform the way we think of food systems.  

We must act now, and we must act together. To an urban Westerner or even a Midwestern farmer, what crops farmers in Kandukurlapalli plant — and how they plant them — may seem like a distant concern. But the U.N.’s report makes it clear that the struggles facing producers around the world are not theirs alone. When wildfires, droughts and floods threaten our food supply, they threaten the survival of each one of us. But if every farmer, rancher and fisher are given the tools they need to adapt, humanity has a real chance to thrive.  

So, as we face the realities of climate change, let’s adapt — and build a more resilient, more just food system for all.   

Eric Schwaab is the senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund and previously served as head of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in the Obama administration. 

Tags Climate change Climate change adaptation Climate change and agriculture Effects of climate change Environmental Defense Fund Food security Human impact on the environment

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