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Climate change continues to be a hotly debated subject. Regardless of what is causing it, the facts continue to emerge. Our climate is changing and agriculture around the world has emerged as the canary in the coal mine indicating the results may be ominous.
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The Double Whammy
Drought is devastating crops around the world.
- Grain crops across Canada have been devastated by heat waves and drought, reducing the total harvest by 25%.
- Crop losses in China are projected to double.
- Unprecedented levels of drought across many countries in Africa have left experts and humanitarian agencies fearing the worst.
- In October 2020, South America experienced the second most intense drought in almost 2 decades.
- In the U.S. extreme heat events are getting progressively drier across the Lower 48 states as the climate warms overall.
- Signs of drought are emerging in Europe’s groundwater at an alarming rate.
And There’s a Catch
Rain is the obvious solution and many parts of the world are still getting rain. Lots of rain. Too much rain. The result is flooding, and the irony of too much of what the rest of the world needs has the same affect on crops: failure.
- China’s agriculture authority is ramping up efforts to ensure ample food supply in China amid extreme weather conditions this year that have posed challenges to the nation’s agricultural production in one of its top food producing regions, then Henan province, which was recently battered by torrential rainfall and inundated by floods.
- The extent of damage to the fresh produce business caused by catastrophic flooding in parts of Europe over the past week has slowly begun to emerge. Record rainfall in parts of Europe including Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands has inundated fields, destroyed crops, and caused major disruption to production sites
It’s a double whammy where food supplies are becoming increasingly threatened by either drought or flooding. As a warming climate elevates the likelihood of droughts and extreme rainfall in the future, human activity, such as increased water consumption, land-use changes, urbanization, and agriculture, could also force more rapid and violent transitions between seesaw events.
The result is increasing food costs, and many of us have already started to notice that everything at the grocery store seems to be more expensive than we remember. The question is whether we’ll pass the tipping point where our climate cannot recover and climate change becomes a permanent condition.
Weather Effects on The Food Supply Chain
It’s not just about what grows in the ground.
- Reduced food production and increasing food costs increase the price of animal feed for livestock, raising meat prices.
- Drought and the heat waves that accompany it have affected farm workers to such a degree that there is a shortage of labor, hiking labor costs.
- Reduced water levels in some rivers has crippled shipping of crops from many food exporting countries and in the U.S.
- Drought and a drop in river water levels in some countries has resulted in reduced exports and even embargoes to keep available crops at home.
Are We Facing a Perfect Storm?
- The COVID pandemic has affected the global supply chain, reducing the ability to ship anything anywhere.
- Backlogs of so many critical components for manufacturing have created a surge in shipping prices, affecting anything that is shipped, including food.
- We are almost totally dependent on imports of all of our fruit in the U.S. and 87% of our fruit exports come from the following countries:
- Mexico: US$5.9 billion (38.7% of US-imported fruits)
- Chile: $2 billion (13%)
- Guatemala: $1.2 billion (7.8%)
- Vietnam: $1 billion (6.9%)
- Peru: $977 million (6.4%)
- Costa Rica: $928.9 million (6.1%)
- Ecuador: $420.9 million (2.8%)
- Honduras: $353.6 million (2.3%)
- Canada: $325.2 million (2.1%)
- Colombia: $195.3 million (1.3%)
What’s ominous is that all of those countries are facing weather threats due to climate change, particularly drought.
How High Can Prices Rise?
The thing that makes anything expensive is its scarcity. It’s why gold and diamonds are so valuable. When we don’t have a lot of something everyone wants, the prices go up. And if there’s one thing everyone wants, it’s food.
We’re already seeing price increases on foods, and if you want a quick barometer on how fast they’ll rise, just keep an eye on food costs at your local grocery stores. More than a few of us have assumed we can go to a low-cost, high-value grocery store and find a better price. When we don’t see lower prices, that’s a good sign that something’s changing. But there are other indicators of the coming price increases in our food supply.
- As of May of 2021, global food prices rose for the 12th month in a row, up nearly 40% year over year, according to the United Nations’ food price index.
- The USDA indicates that US food prices haven’t yet returned to normal after pandemic grocery buying caused them to skyrocket in 2020. Overall food prices in the US were up 2.4% in April of 2021 from the same period a year ago, while fruit and vegetable prices rose 3.3%.
- Since February of 2021, prices of fruits and vegetables have risen by nearly 2 percent, and the index for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs has risen by 0.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The spike comes on the back of prices that had already risen during last year’s pandemic stockpiling and supply chain disruptions and never went down.
Things are going to change, and we’ll have to change with them. How easily do we assume that we can always walk through a produce aisle in the dead of winter and find fresh fruits and vegetables from mangoes to apples to organic kale? Many will continue to be there, but the prices may have us looking at edible weeds like dandelions and plantains a whole new way.
Prepping for a long-term if not permanent food shortage goes beyond typical disaster planning. Food storage is one consideration, but sustainability is the most critical decision. It’s the ability to essentially grow your own. In addition, the knowledge and ability to preserve foods and harvest seeds for further crops is important.
All of this assumes you have some ability to find and harvest natural water sources to some degree. Growing your own crops also gives you the option to support livestock. Even if you’re just raising chickens, you need to feed them, and it’s fair to assume that if food prices are higher, it will apply to animal feed as well.
Long-term food storage doesn’t necessarily start at the grocery store. You can certainly buy canned goods, but their shelf-life is measured in months up to a couple of years. In a time when food prices are beyond the reach of most, the best food-storage option may be specially processed and packaged foods with a shelf-life measured in decades rather than years.
There are some long-term food storage packages pre-packed in hermetically sealed cans and other specialized packaging designed for families or groups of varying sizes, and all offering significantly long shelf-lives. On their own, they fall into the category of emergency foods, but when combined with storage from anything you grow or raise, they can be excellent additions to any meal.
The fastest path to food sustainability is the ability to plant a garden. This goes beyond traditional gardening, this means using every available plot of soil. Forget about flowers (unless they’re edible). Everything you plant should be a fruit or vegetable that you or any animals you raise can eat. That means planting vegetables in old flower beds by the front door and planting fruit trees anytime you decide to plant a new tree.
There are large kits of packaged seeds designed for disaster gardening. Make sure you have them in storage and store them properly based on any package directions. The key is to keep them dry and cool if not cold. If the droughts are severe, look for drought-tolerant varieties.
Anytime you see vegetable or fruit seeds on sale, buy a bunch and either plant them or store them. It’s also wise to learn a thing or two about how to harvest seeds, dry them, and store them for the next crop. As food prices increase and more and more people turn to “victory” gardens, the availability and cost of seeds will also increase.
There’s more to gardening than throwing seeds in the ground. If you haven’t done any extensive vegetable gardening, take some time to learn and understand some gardening basics and ideas about garden alternatives and soil preparation.
Composting is another skill to understand in addition to ways to collect and channel rainwater and any other water you harvest to your garden. Grey water is an excellent way to upcycle previously used water to keep your gardens growing.
We’ve already seen meat prices go up and protein from meat is an important nutritional supplement. We can also get a good share of protein from legumes (beans and peas), but meat on the table is comforting for many.
Learn about raising chickens, ducks or turkeys and understand what you need to feed them and make sure you grow that as well. Corn is a common feed for poultry, but make sure you understand the range of foods any poultry will require.
Rabbits are the next step up for suburban areas, and their pens are also easy to construct but once again, you’ll probably do better to grow their food rather than buying it.
Livestock from pigs to cattle are a big step for some, but if you live in a rural area or have land measured in acres, you could consider the possibility. The pens, barns, and fencing become more complex, so do some homework to make sure it’s something you want to pursue.
Hunting and fishing is always an option until everybody decides to do it.
It makes sense to eat as you grow any vegetables, fruits, and farm animals. Hopefully, you’ll have more than you can eat so you can preserve and store food for the future.
Now may be a good time to learn more about basic food preservation skills. This would include canning, drying, dehydration, pickling, fermentation, smoking, curing, freeze-drying and other ways to preserve foods.
A root cellar is another possibility, assuming you have the soil and the space to dig one out. A lot depends on your location and the dependability of your electricity.
A large freezer is also worth considering for both vegetables and meats. A lot depends on your location and the effects of any climate change on the local power grid or your ability to generate your own power through solar, wind or hydro power.
Sharpen Your Cooking Skills
If your idea of cooking is opening a can and pouring it into a sauce pan, you might want to expand your cooking skills. When you’re cooking with fresh ingredients and even with long-term food stores, you’ll need to understand some cooking basics to improvise nutritious meals that actually taste good.
It happens all the time in community gardens. Someone discovers that some of their crops have been pinched in the night. At a time when food prices are extremely high, even something as simple as a garden could be a target for a thief. Think about what and where you plant so you can at least protect and keep an eye on what you grow or raise. A fence might be a good place to start.
Change the Way You Eat
For many people, changing the way they eat will take care of itself. If you just can’t afford that T-bone, you may have to think about how to cook a Chuck steak until it’s tender. There will always be tradeoffs that result in us buying “this instead of that”, but those tradeoffs may become an everyday habit if prices continue to rise.
Teach Your Children
Climate change is not a temporary event. If we reach the tipping point, the effects of climate change will affect everything we do for generations. Make sure the next generation learns with you as you adjust to a diminished and expensive food supply. The new behaviors we may learn as a result will define an everyday lifestyle for future generations. Make sure that next generation has a head start as we adjust to a growing scarcity of affordable foods.
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