Beyond Veganuary: How climate change is affecting our food supply, and what we can do about it.

By Juliet Dunstone

It is well documented that our addiction to meat and dairy is harming the planet, emitting nearly 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Campaigns like Veganuary encourage us to switch to plant-based diets in order to reduce our impact on the climate. Because of this, veganism is on the rise and many of us, especially in January, are thinking more consciously about the way we eat.

But unfortunately, a reliance on meat and dairy isn’t the only climate issue facing our food system.

Food Security

One of the most major climate issues impacting our diet is the change in weather patterns, which is altering how much food we can grow, and where we can grow it. Extreme weather events such as droughts or floods may cause crops to fail or be ruined. Earlier this year, unprecedented heatwaves in India reduced wheat production so much that wheat exports were banned to many countries, and increased cyclones in recent years have led to devastating swarms of locusts, destroying crops in East Africa. As well as extreme events like this, changing weather patterns globally are altering the regions that are suitable for growing many of our staple crops. While this may have some benefits for farmers in the Northern hemisphere, it would be a catastrophe for farmers in regions that are already warm, as their land becomes unsuitable for agriculture.

Another major issue impacting our food security is our reliance on monocultures – huge areas of farmland devoted to a single crop – and very limited variety amongst those crops. This lack of diversity in what we grow can make our food supply less resilient to climate change, and much more susceptible to being wiped out by pests or diseases. To make matters worse, climate change also increases the risk of crop pests and diseases spreading in the first place.

Waste, Loss, and Degradation

A huge amount of food is wasted well before it reaches our fridges or even our supermarkets. Over 15% of all food produced worldwide may be wasted during harvesting, according to a report by WWF and Tesco. Because of the energy, water and land used to produce food that is never even eaten, food waste amounts to a staggering 6% of global emissions.

If that wasn’t enough, use of monocultures (those bad guys again!) and pesticides are contributing to the biodiversity crisis we are facing in addition to the climate crisis. Nitrogen fertilisers from farmland often end up making their way into rivers and these are causing water pollution and leaving ‘dead zones’ in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Finally, unsustainable farming practices are degrading our soil at an alarming rate.

Positive Changes

While this all sounds very scary, there are lots of positive changes happening within agriculture that could transform the way we farm for the better. For example, we have previously written about the benefits of agroforestry in increasing farms’ resilience to climate change and improving their biodiversity.

In North America, some black women-led farms are using regenerative farming practices to reduce emissions, provide sustainable food security and combat historic racism for communities of colour (via All We Can Save).

Scientists are combatting our reliance on monocultures and limited crop varieties by introducing wild wheat varieties to existing crop breeding programmes, and breeding perennial grains. Perennial crops (crops that don’t need to be replanted every year, but instead live for many years) reduce the need for pesticides, protect soil from erosion and reduce costs for farmers.

Training in sustainable farming provided by education charity Camfed is helping tens of thousands of farmers in Africa increase yields while building climate resilience, and reducing agricultural food waste.

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