Shifts in response to global climate change

by Morton Sosland
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Steps to halt climate change have joined with health care reform as highly charged, divisive political issues that food executives urgently want addressed in a considered manner. Yet, realism says this will not happen in present-day America where pursuit of political advantage overwhelms clear thinking. Unlike health care, which is truly an American issue, climate change is a matter of great global concern that will not just be resolved by what happens in Washington but by steps taken by nearly 200 other countries. That is especially the case as the United Nations December 6-18 Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, rapidly approaches without the guiding legislation passed by the U.S. Congress defining how this country should react to global climate change.

It is almost inconceivable that the American delegation to Copenhagen will arrive without a legislatively-defined course. This is the last U.N.-sponsored Climate Conference scheduled that could undertake actions ahead of the expiration of the commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol completed at the end of 1997. Those commitments expire in 2012, and the Copenhagen conference has been timed to keep alive those steps undertaken in Japan while encouraging new commitments. As a reminder, the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol pledging the United States to a 7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. But both President Clinton and his successor President Bush never submitted that protocol to the Senate for its advice and consent, insisting that developing countries like India, China and Russia must make similar commitments to cut emissions. Subsequent international gatherings convened by the signatories to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change have done little to resolve this and other issues that have prevented Kyoto from being the success hoped for it.

In the face of the wide range of steps that have been taken to relieve concerns about climate change, studies undertaken by researchers focused on agriculture increasingly accept that left alone, the shifts now under way will cause major food changes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, climate change will have a pronounced impact on agricultural yields, which in turn will affect national and international markets, will boost prices of food and energy, will cut agricultural incomes, and will hurt the environment. Each of these would definitely influence food’s future, if for no other reason than that past yield changes due to many different factors explain any number of radical shifts in food production. Something so obvious as expanding production of crops that have replaced wheat acreage in the American Great Plains underscore the way such a situation quickly brings economic repercussions.

If one accepts that the earth’s temperature is rising because of increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which is the mantra of Mr. Obama and his administration, then one has to agree that this is caused by human activity. Agricultural practices have a role in this, accounting for about 40 per cent of the human emissions of carbon dioxide in the last two centuries. Thus, changes in food production are among the steps advocated to control climate change, but this is not the primary way food production will feel this weight. It is the likely increase in global temperature, with its negative effects on both crop and livestock yields and the way this will govern what crops farmers choose to raise, that is seen as the most immediate impact. In turn, these very same agricultural changes will have a pronounced effect on food and fiber consumption, on prices of agricultural commodities and on national incomes.

"Adaptive responses to global climate change will likely include both the use of new crop varieties and replacement of one crop by another," the U.S.D.A. has concluded. That is shift enough to alert the food industry that its very underpinnings could be transformed by both climate change and by the way the United States finally decides how to react to these terrifying possibilities.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 13, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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