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One-third of food production threatened by climate change

More than one-third of the world’s food production is threatened by climate change, according to a study from Aalto University. The experts report that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, large farming regions will be pushed into climate conditions in which no food is grown today.

“Our research shows that rapid, out-of-control growth of greenhouse gas emissions may, by the end of the century, lead to more than a third of current global food production falling into conditions in which no food is produced today – that is, out of safe climatic space,” said study co-author Professor Matti Kummu.

The researchers define ‘safe climatic space” as those areas where 95 percent of crop production currently takes place. Food production in these regions rely on a combination of three climate factors: rainfall, temperature, and aridity.

“The good news is that only a fraction of food production would face as-of-yet unseen conditions if we collectively reduce emissions, so that warming would be limited to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius,” explained Professor Kummu.

Shifts in rainfall and aridity, combined with a warming climate, are particularly threatening to food production in South Asia and the Sahel region of Africa. 

“Food production as we know it developed under a fairly stable climate, during a period of slow warming that followed the last ice age. The continuous growth of greenhouse gas emissions may create new conditions, and food crop and livestock production just won’t have enough time to adapt,” said study co-author Matias Heino.

The researchers investigated the outcomes associated with two future emissions scenarios – one in which carbon dioxide emissions are cut radically and one in which emissions continue growing unhalted.

The study was focused on how climate change would affect 27 food crops and seven different types of livestock. The experts accounted for the capacity for each region to adapt to changes. 

The analysis revealed that in 52 of the 177 countries studied, including most European countries, food production would remain entirely in the safe climatic space in the future.

By contrast, in many countries that are already vulnerable – such as Benin, Cambodia, Ghana, Guyana and Suriname – up to 95 percent of current food production could fall outside of safe climatic space.

Overall, 20 percent of the world’s crop production and 18 percent of global livestock production under threat are located in countries with a low capacity to adapt to change.

“If we let emissions grow, the increase in desert areas is especially troubling because in these conditions barely anything can grow without irrigation. By the end of this century, we could see more than 4 million square kilometres of new desert around the globe,” said Professor Kummu.

The study supports the conclusion of a massive collection of scientific studies thatt he world needs urgent action to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. 

“We need to mitigate climate change and, at the same time, boost the resilience of our food systems and societies – we cannot leave the vulnerable behind. Food production must be sustainable,” said Heino.

The study is published in the journal One Earth.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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