30 ways extreme weather affects our food
Weather events—particularly those that are disastrous and extreme—can have massive repercussions on the world and its inhabitants. In 2018, climate disasters cost the world more than $160 billion; over the last three decades, 53,000 people have died yearly on average as a result of these disasters. As of Oct. 8, 2019, 10 weather and climate disasters had been reported in 2019 in the U.S. alone at an estimated cost of $1 billion.
2017 saw the most Category 4 hurricanes in the United States in the last 170 years. Weather events caused sudden losses, also called “shocks,” to crops, fisheries, livestock, and aquaculture 226 times between 1961 and 2013. Conditions and events like these also affect the food we consume in ways that impact production, distribution, consumption, quality, and availability. Some of these effects on our food are less severe, but many come with the potential for harmful consequences: toxins produced by crops in response, record-breaking high temperatures, delays in the transportation of crops and foods, imbalances in supply and demand, and skyrocketing prices for produce.
Scientific research shows a rise in the frequency and severity of climate disasters. The U.S. averaged 6.3 weather and climate disasters each year between 1980 and 2018. From the last five years (2014 to 2018), that average is 12.6. But while most of the effects of climate change and weather events are negative, some areas and industries benefit. British fine wine has become popular, states like North Dakota now have a longer growing season, and some California farmers are now growing coffee.
Stacker has put together a list of 30 ways extreme weather and climate disaster affect our food, using a variety of trusted sources. Read on to find out what might be impacting the food consumed around the globe, and how the food and agriculture industries as a whole are seeing change.
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Poison in the crops
In the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi, as well as other areas suffering record-breaking high temperatures, droughts, and sporadic weather conditions, crops like wheat, maize, barley, soybeans, millet, and sorghum may be producing toxic levels of chemical compounds like nitrate in self-defense. The heightened toxins levels may cause health issues in livestock and people.
Flooding and mudslides in China
China's Yangtze river basin saw devastating flooding in the summer of 2016, resulting in huge losses to rice, cotton, vegetable, and livestock production. At least 11 provinces in China saw 8 to 11 inches of rain in one day, leading to flooding and mudslides that resulted in 40,000 homes destroyed, nearly 4 million acres of crops ruined, and 128 related deaths.
Global warming, rising temps, and rainfall changes
Wheat production in South Asia could decline by 50% over the next three decades due to increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns. Areas around the world may suffer a similar fate, as the agricultural production in developing countries like Pakistan and India is predicted to fall anywhere between 10% and 40% in the upcoming years due to global warming. This impacts food security, crop productivity, and overall food supply.
Malnourishment already in the billions
The world saw a 1.4 degree Fahrenheit increase in its mean surface temperature in the 20th century, resulting in consequences for food availability. More than 2 billion people were found to have micronutrient insufficiency, and 795 million people were reported undernourished between 2012 and 2014. Particularly in China, cereals and legumes are the main sources of iron and zinc. With elevated carbon dioxide levels that only continue to rise, many of these staples' nutrients become compromised, which negatively impacts human health.
Greenhouse emissions and rising global temperatures
In the next 80 years, you may no longer be enjoying corn or meat in the U.S. or around the world. Rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions are projected to cut the production of corn in half. A predicted global four-degree upswing would lead to problems raising livestock—as corn is a major source of feed—as well as biofuel production.
Food transportation and security
Transportation of food is also affected by extreme weather and climate disasters. Food can spoil or become contaminated if not stored properly, which can result in problems like increased food-borne illness. In the summer of 2012, severe drought affected the Mississippi River—a major crop transportation route for the Midwest—resulting in major food losses.
Ocean and freshwater species suffering
Both ocean and and freshwater species are suffering from climate change, to the detriment of more than 540 million people whose livelihoods rely on these sources. Ninety percent of the excess heat of greenhouse emissions has been absorbed by our oceans since the 1950s, and fish and shellfish are moving north out of their natural habitats to find cooler waters. Warmer waters lead to higher mercury retention, and a higher likelihood for pathogens and marine diseases to thrive. Lobster, red hake, and black sea bass have moved 119 miles north since the 1960s along the U.S. northeast. In Portugal, 20 new species have migrated up from warmer waters.
Fewer nutrients, more foodborne illnesses
Carbon emissions from cars and electricity continue to result in rising global temperatures. The nutrients in our food are being reduced by rising carbon dioxide levels, and as weeds and pests thrive in these warmer climates, farmers are often forced to use more pesticides and chemicals to protect crops making food much less healthy and toxic to consumers. Rising temperatures also result in a higher likelihood of the presence and spread of foodborne illnesses.
Where's the wheat?
Over the last decade, wheat production has been hit hard in places like Australia, the U.S., the Middle East, and Russia due to widespread drought. Russian wheat production suffered the most loss in a generation, resulting in an export embargo. With rising temperatures and droughts, shortages and declines in staple crops may become more common.
Plants and crops at risk for mold
As temperatures continue to rise and heat waves become more common, plants and crops will be at risk for molds like fusarium, which produce harmful toxins. When crops ravaged by drought then experience heavy rainfall, the plants accumulate hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, used in chemical warfare to interfere with respiratory function.
Stressing out the livestock
Warmer temperatures and heat waves can result in heat stress to poultry and livestock, particularly dairy cows, which are sensitive to heat. Heat stress can result in reduced fertility, productivity, and appetite, as well as increased vulnerability to disease. In Indiana, by mid-century, days with heat stress events are likely to jump by 117% to 147%, and the length of may double.
Kiss chocolate goodbye
West African countries like Ghana, a large producer of quality cocoa, are only going to get hotter due to heat waves and drought. Cocoa production plummets, and the quality of chocolate declines as temperatures rise. Like many other products, chocolate will become more scarce, but you can still get your chocolate fix (if you can afford it).
As precipitation patterns become more sporadic and temperatures increase, livestock becomes more susceptible to the parasites and diseases that thrive in warm, wet conditions. Farmers must turn to more preventative methods, using more medication on their livestock, which increases the chance that medication will enter the food chain.
In October 2018, one of the most catastrophic Category 4 hurricanes in recorded history hit the southeastern United States. Hurricane Michael destroyed cotton fields, pecan orchards, pine groves, farm structures, and irrigation systems. The area saw more than $640 million lost in pecans and tens of millions in cotton and poultry. As extreme weather becomes more common, more events like these will follow. Since 1983, the affected region of Georgia has seen nearly a three-degree rise in temperature. It's also seen an increase in rainfall, from 48 to 52 inches over the last century.
False hopes of spring
In Midwestern states like Michigan and Indiana, crops are shaking off their winter dormancy too early. Temperatures fluctuate erratically and crops are harmed or killed by frost damage. In 2012, Michigan's apples were devastated by a “false spring” as millions of bushels of apples were lost, along with apple farmers' anticipated income.
Erratic precipitation is only increasing as the planet heats up. A 2017 study in Scientific Reports revealed that variable patterns have been on an upswing over the last few decades, and will keep increasing by up to 5% with every degree increase in global temperature. Precipitation is also falling harder and more frequently, which results in farmland degradation, and other negative effects on farm and livestock operations and production.
Winter is coming
In contrast to false springs, plants and crops are also suffering from disruptions to the time periods and patterns during which they prepare for winter dormancy. In Indiana, particularly among fruit trees and vines, these crops are taken by unfortunate surprise by the cold temperatures and weather.
The world's top producers of arabica coffee are already suffering the effects of rising temperatures and droughts. Globally, 4% of the world's farmland undergoes drought in any year, but that number may jump to 18% by the end of the century. Coffee-growing regions in Central America and Brazil anticipate significant decline by 2050, as nearly 80% of the land there becomes unfarmable.
Storms taking out restaurants
Hurricane Michael in 2018 disrupted the restaurant industry. In Atlanta, 29 Waffle Houses experienced closures—unheard of for these 24/7 establishments—during and after the extreme weather event. Chipotle Mexican Grill closed 14 of its restaurants across Florida and Georgia due to the approaching Category 4 storm. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and tropical storms can result in power outages and building damage to restaurants.
[Pictured: Nathan's at Coney Island rebuilds after Hurricane Sandy in 2013]
British rivals top winemaking countries
The British may rival French, Italian, and Spanish winemaking as warmer temperatures and more precipitation allows for better grape-growing conditions. The United Kingdom could find itself as a top producer of wine in the next 80 years, all thanks to climate change. Temperatures are expected to rise by at least two degrees (and rain by 5%), which is expected to make Britain a more fertile ground for a variety of wine styles.
While coffee production is suffering in Tanzania and Guatemala due to weather events, California's farmers are now producing their own. Coffee crops are taking root all over Southern California as temperatures rise and these areas become more welcoming environments for production. Due to the increase and severity of droughts, farmers have been looking to less water-consuming crops, including coffee.
Canadian peaches and grapes
As temperatures increase and more extreme weather conditions follow, crops move further north. What was once grown solely in one region may now be a viable crop further north, like in Canada where peaches and grapes are now growing at an exponential rate. Due to this effect, farmers encounter new opportunities, which bolster economies and offer consumers new kinds of local produce. It does, however, come at a cost to regions in the U.S. struggling to make up for these obstacles and losses. Parts of Canada are now fertile land for crops like soybeans and corn, where they previously would not have survived.
In with the new, out with the old
Phenomena like grapes and peaches thriving in Canada continue to surface in light of the changing climate. The extent is dependent on how much temperatures rise; if the planet only sees a one- or two-degree increase, most farmers will be able to adapt and continue growing the same crops. But if there is a global three- to five-degree increase, as is predicted, farmers will have to look to new sources of income. In turn, consumers will have different options at their stores, and retailers and restaurants may have to adapt as well. Prices will increase or decrease as food availability and quality changes.
While climate change and warmer temperatures have benefited the lobster industry since the early '80s, things are now taking a turn for the worse. Lobster fishing in Maine rocketed to a half-billion-dollar behemoth as the cool waters of the Gulf of Maine warmed to idyllic levels for crustaceans. In just the last year, however, Maine's lobster population has decreased by 50%, from 22 to 11 million. At this rate, the numbers are expected to plummet another 12% by 2050.
Any pockmark or deformity on an apple renders it unfit for supermarkets and retailers. These specimens are instead sold as juice or sauce—a much less lucrative option for apple-growers. Apples can be blemished with russeting (brown, harmless areas on their skin) from frost, and heat waves can disrupt its pigmentation period, causing an apple to turn a brownish-pink instead of the more desirable bright red. Farmers in Michigan—once the ideal place for apple-growing—are starting to see these defects more frequently.
New locals on the scene
As the climate heats up, staple crops like beans in Michigan—a producer of navy, black, and kidney beans—are migrating north into states like Minnesota, North Dakota, and even Canada. As plants and crops move into new territories, the produce, livestock, and food selection in stores and on menus will change, as well.
Bitter truth for your sweet tooth
The stress on sugar maple trees caused by heavy winter precipitation and hotter, drier summers may affect pancake and waffle-lovers everywhere. The sap from sugar maples creates maple syrup, but increasing temperatures are speeding up sap production, resulting in smaller quantities available to process. The industry is also on a path to move further north, causing losses in maple tree growth in states like Pennsylvania.
Cheerio to cherries
Stone fruit trees need consistently cool periods in order for their fruit to develop and ripen properly. These fruits—cherries in particular—are suffering from temperature fluctuations. When there are not enough cool nights, trees may flower at a delay and produce smaller quantities of fruit. These weather effects can be disastrous, as in 2012 when Michigan's cherry industry saw a 90% loss of its fruit due to a late freeze.
Wine prices up, taste down
As temperatures rise, wine grapes will be in higher demand, resulting in price increases. Due to fluctuations in temperatures and precipitation levels in Europe, Australia, North America, and South Africa, the “perfect wine grape” will be much harder to grow. In the next 30 years, more than 70% of Australia's and California's land could become unsuitable for farming. In these weather conditions, grapes produce more sugar, resulting in a higher alcohol content, and complications for winemakers who don't want the extra sugar or alcohol content.
Food in your fridge
Extreme weather events often result in power outages and damage to homes. These power outages can result in food spoilage and contamination, which can lead to illnesses and food waste. Flooding and burst pipes can also lead to food contamination, should food come into contact with contaminated water. Make sure to prepare accordingly in the event of an extreme weather event.
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