Special edition: Climate change

Climate and changes in the food supply

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Climate change, Food

The world is changing - that much few now deny. While
businesses of all sorts are striving to clean up their act, the
food supply is one area where the impact of climate change could be
felt most keenly.

How climate change could affect global food supply ​ No-one yet knows whether climate change will be reversible - or indeed what all its effects could be. But scientists have more than an inkling, and if some of their predictions come to pass it does not paint a very pretty picture for the future. First of all, a bad harvest always meant not enough to eat for the coming winter. Well, that's not really the case with today's globalised food industry. A hurricane or a too-hot summer in one part of the world might mean avocados are few and far between for a year or two, but we'll always be able to fly in supplies from elsewhere, even if they do cost more. Right? But the outlook could be beyond one bad harvest. Last month the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) warned that many as 61 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analysed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analysed could become extinct in the next fifty years, as weather patterns or soil conditions alter. Beyond the immediate threat of fewer peanuts and potatoes (and they expect these predictions could also hold true for many other kinds of crops too), the disappearance of species means that the pool of genes available to breed more resilient crops that can withstand drought, pests and, yes, the effects of climate change, could shrink dramatically. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said last week that intensification of agricultural methods and standardisation of products are causing some varieties to drop out and, again, limiting the genetic tool kit we have to tinker with crops and ensure their survival. While the CGIAR stressed the importance of seed banks in safeguarding genes for future use, Professor Mark Tester, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and fellow of the Australian Research Council Federation, believes that genetic modification will play a major role in securing the food supply. Tester and his team are working on identifying genes that make some plants more tolerant to hostile environments like drought, salinity and frost. The aim is to use these genes in plants that are suitable for commercial production, using both genetic modification and conventional breeding techniques. So far, laboratory tests "suggest great promise"for the rapid development of crops with increased salt tolerance,​ Tester reports. While there is considerable resistance to GM in Europe, in Africa and other regions where the food supply is already insecure it has garnered considerably more interest for the good it could do - even if some fear the biotech giants are exploiting the poor for their own gain. In the same vein, Tester believes GM will come to play a greater role in developed countries. For instance, Australia - like other countries - is presently experiencing increasing levels of salinity. Around 5.7m hectares of soil are affected, with efforts to combat the problem costing an estimated A$270 m a year. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs lists the potential threats of climate change on farmers' livelihoods, including prolonged and more frequent droughts, rainfall distribution changes, rising sea levels, changing pest loads, risk of heat stress in livestock, and changes in the soil water balance. While not actually referencing GM, it says: "Individual agricultural businesses need to be ready to seize opportunities for new crops and markets, and to adapt to evolving pressures."​ Until quite recently, it was a fairly safe bet that most of what we grow is intended for consumption - if not by humans then by livestock. But another, indirect affect of climate change on agriculture is biofuel. Much in the news as an alternative to fossil fuels, which are fast running out and emit harmful gasses when burnt anyhow, biofuels have been blamed for pushing up food prices as demand for corn hots up It doesn't just stop at corn. Farmers, realizing there is a burgeoning market, divert acrage that was previously devoted to other crops like soybeans to corn and drive up prices of those, too. And when gains are getting to cost so much, why waste precious supplies feeding cows and chickens just so you can sell their meat or milk? The knock on effect for the food industry ​ So far, so bad for the farmers. But there are several steps in the journey from field to fork, and it would be far-fetched to conjure up Soviet-era images of empty shelves and lines of hungry consumers - at least in the West. But next in line are food ingredient suppliers and manufacturers, and the impact on them and their bottom lines could be significant. The prudent ingredient company keeps open several channels of supply for a vital raw material open at once - just in case one should close up, so it doesn't leave them high and dry. This is particularly important for ingredients sourced from politically unstable regions, but other factors, such as unpredictable weather, can also throw the most well-thought out commercial strategy into disarray. However a back up plan is not always possible. Food ingredients companies need to keep a constant eye on their supply chain and be aware that they may need to deal with exceptional costs. It was nary a balance sheet this year that did not mention raw material or energy costs as having an effect on margins. It could be prudent to build extra costs into financial planning, and assess whether these cost can realistically be passed on to the consumer. R&D scientists are hot on developing alternatives to ingredients that are crucial in formulations, but which may not always be to hand. For instance, researchers have found that maltodextrin and whey protein could be used instead of gum arabic; as could ezyme-modified soybean sugar. In worse cases, manufacturers may even have to consider reformulating food products to do without ingredients that are no longer available. Prof Tester believes that climate change could be the decisive factor in great GM debate. Quite simply, he thinks consumers may not have much choice over whether or not they eat GM foods, if they want to eat at all. If he's right, it will mark a significant turn-around from the current state of affairs, where companies are increasingly using natural and non-GM affirmations to reel in the socially- and environmentally-aware consumer. The next leap in consumer consciousness could see sustainability could become a bigger buzz-word on labels - and the first steps are already with us. Last year the third-party ProTerra Certification Programme from Cert ID was launched, recognizing responsible companies and giving them the chance to communicate that materials have not been produced in a manner that contributes to social and environmental degradation. The present food supply model is basically linear - from farmers, to ingredients makers, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers. But the relation between consumer awareness and industry trends is more complex, with influences flowing in both directions. White-coated scientists, boardroom execs, environmental activists, and ethical consumers now broadly agree - climate is already changing the way we eat. And practices and attitudes will have to change too.

Related topics: Market Trends

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