Columnist Richard Fein: Climate change and food

  • In this Thursday, May 23, 2019 photo, a cotton picking tractor of Grosvenor Farms sits marooned in its Holly Bluff, Miss., shed, as backwater surround it and the fields surrounding it. AP

Published: 9/27/2021 8:37:21 PM

When we think about climate change, we probably think about the destruction of nature, lost lives and the awful possibility that our children and grandchildren will inherit a world that is much less habitable than the one we currently have. This column is about a more everyday topic — the destructive impact of climate change on our food supply.

Climate change brings us more severe weather more frequently. It can cause there to be drought, a prolonged period of low rainfall, leading to a shortage of water. Climate change brings us rain in quantities that can be overwhelming and/or out of season. It causes, wildfires, mudslides and floods. All of these adverse conditions can result in a serious threat to America’s food supply.

Drought can stunt the growth of crops, resulting in a decline in the size and quality of produce. What the farmer can’t grow or raise, the rest of us can’t eat. When the farmer cannot feed or water cows and goats, s/he may need to sell at least part of their herds.

How serious is the current drought? The Agricultural Commodities Drought Monitor had this to report on U.S. acreage in severe draught conditions — alfalfa hay (63%); cattle (34%); hay (34%); hogs and pigs (44%); milk cows (48%); and sheep and lambs acreage (58%).

Irrigation may not be an available solution for drought. Time magazine summarized it this way: “The biggest challenge for many: water. All across the West, residents are facing down a summer of severe drought and heat. Rivers are low and groundwater resources are, too. Reservoirs are below capacity ... water access is restricted.”

Too much rain is also a problem. One newspaper in Virginia had this to say: “Many farmers will tell you they prefer drought to excessive rain.”

Too much rain for too long a time can be devastating to an agricultural operation. Too much rain at planting or harvest time can saturate the ground, making it too wet to get into the fields. Plant roots need water and food, but they also need air. Standing water can drown plants, especially young ones. Even animal agriculture feels the effects of excessive rain. It can destroy hay or greatly reduce its yield, or extremely wet fields can keep animals from grazing efficiently.

Excessive heat can be a major problem for cows and goats.

An Oxford Academic study explained the situation this way: “The direct effects are due primarily to increased temperatures and frequency and intensity of heat waves. These environmental conditions can affect livestock health by causing metabolic disruptions, oxidative stress, and immune suppression causing infections and death.”

The result is lower productivity, namely less milk.

The food problem extends to fish. Data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported that surface waters and many fresh water streams are warming throughout the United States. Many fish are sensitive to temperature and can survive only in specific temperature ranges.

As waters in oceans, streams, and the Great Lakes warm, fish seek out cooler waters in higher latitudes or elevation, or when possible, in higher latitudes or elevation, or when possible, in greater depths. Climate Central says, “But there are limitations to how far north, or high in elevation, fish can travel before running out of water, let alone water in a suitable temperature zone. Diminished snow pack melt removes a source of cool water to replenish streams, rivers, and lakes accelerating the warming of waterways.”

Mud slides can result in impediments to delivering food that is grown or caught because it can result in significant infrastructure damage. In Colorado, torrential rainfall on an area charred and stripped of vegetation by a recent wildfire sent a rush of mud and boulders tumbling down steep canyon walls and onto a major highway. The closed road caused long detours for semi-trailers that deliver fuel and food.

Climate change is about more than the dramatic, photogenic stories we read about hurricanes, floods and polar bears stranded on an ice floe. It is also about something very basic, namely food. Perhaps greater understanding of climate change as a bread and butter issue would be helpful for our fellow citizens who are not yet sufficiently concerned about this problem. It may also encourage elective officials to take more effective actions.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at

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