News MIT Climate Portal Explainer: Food Systems and Agriculture

Curious about how climate change impacts food system and agriculture?  Given the complexities of the food systems, the projected impacts could happen at scales that can manifest at the personal as well as the global scale. 

Greg Sixt, Research Manager for Climate and Food Systems, J-WAFS October 2, 2020

Dry corn in a parched field

Credit: iStock

Food systems are the complex web of people and activities that make up the production, processing, transport, and consumption of food. The foundation of these systems is agriculture, the practice of growing crops, trees, and other plants and raising animals for food, fiber, and fuel. Food systems are affected by many challenges including climate change, rapid population growth, degradation of land and water resources, urbanization, and changing consumption patterns driven by a growing global middle class.

Agriculture is likely to face severe impacts from climate change(1), reducing the amount of food we can grow at a time when more is needed than ever before. The planet’s growing population and food consumption will require food production to increase by 70% by 2050(2). At the same time, the production, storage, and transport of food causes greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.

Climate Change Impacts on Food Systems

Climate change impacts on food systems are complex and vary from place to place, affecting the poorest and most vulnerable the most. In some regions, climate change is already causing crop yields to fall. Higher temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and increased weeds, pests, and crop and animal disease all threaten food supply. Floods and droughts caused by climate change also threaten food production. Sea level rise will flood agricultural fields and important infrastructure, and will increase the salinity of many coastal aquifers, making them unsuitable for irrigation. Additionally, there is growing evidence that climate change will decrease the nutritional quality of many staple crops like wheat, rice, and corn(3).

Food Systems’ Impact on Climate Change

Food systems are responsible for up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions(3). Agriculture contributes to these emissions in several ways. Livestock such as cattle, sheep, and goats produce methane gas during digestion and from their manure. Soils, fertilizer, and animal manure emit nitrous oxide gas. The production of rice, which is a staple food for almost half of the world population, is responsible for about 11% of all manmade methane emissions(4). In addition, cutting down forests for new farmland and unsustainable farming practices are major sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

While most greenhouse gas emissions from food systems come from agriculture, other related factors play a role in climate change too. The production of synthetic fertilizer accounts for about 1% of global CO2 emissions(5). The transport, storage, processing, and packaging of food may account for as much as 5-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions(6). Finally, almost a third of all food produced is lost or wasted. When food goes to waste, more food and greenhouse gases must be produced in order to feed the world’s population.

This piece was originally published on the MIT Climate Portal here.  Find out more about climate change from other MIT experts here.
Find out more about the author, Greg Sixt, J-WAFS research manager for climate and food systems.

Find out more about what J-WAFS is doing to combat the effects of climate change on food Systems and agriculture?

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