Climate change threatens food production in countries that need it most: study

About 90 per cent of humanity — including most of the world’s poorest people — faces poorer harvests and smaller catches if efforts to fight climate change don’t drastically ramp up, says research published Wednesday.

And while Canada may be one of the only countries where production of grain and fish could increase, Canadians shouldn’t feel smug, says study co-author William Cheung from the University of British Columbia.

“We are living in the same world. Everything is connected. Any country that thinks they would be able to isolate themselves from any problems or impacts in other countries is unrealistic,” Cheung said in an interview.

Cheung’s research has long focused on the impact of climate change on marine resources. He co-authored a recent paper concluding the amount of life in the oceans will decrease 17 per cent by 2100 under current greenhouse gas rules.

This paper, published in the journal Science Advances, is broader yet.

It starts by estimating the average productivity of agriculture and fisheries in about 200 countries by 2100.

For some countries, average farm production could increase while fisheries decline, the paper says. For others, it’s likely to be the reverse.

It also says that in Canada — almost uniquely in the world — both are expected to increase. But there are plenty of lose-lose countries, mostly in the heavily populated nations around the equator.

It predicts that heat is expected to make much of their land unfarmable. Many tropical fisheries are likely to disappear as fish head north to cooler waters.

Cheung compared that data to how dependent local people are on their own agriculture and fisheries. He also considered how resilient their communities are to climate change. He came to a disturbing conclusion.

Not only are 7.2 billion people likely to see declining food production, they are also the most dependent on it, the least resilient and the poorest.

“The countries that have the highest exposure to hazards are also those that are most sensitive and least adaptive,” Cheung said.

The study was released the day after the United Nations warned that governments are not doing enough to keep global temperature increases to between 1.5 and two degrees Celsius.

Cheung won’t call his paper pessimistic. He points out it also says there’s still time to avert disaster.

Cutting greenhouse gases to keep within Paris targets would reduce average crop losses for lose-lose countries to five per cent from 25 per cent. Their average fisheries losses would improve to 15 per cent from 60 per cent.

“That’s a big opportunity to reduce the impacts on the most vulnerable regions.”

And if rich countries need an economic incentive, Cheung’s paper provides that as well.

Most of the 15 countries that produce about 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases would enter the win-win category for agricultural and fishery production under stringent climate rules. That list includes the United States and China.

“We are lagging behind in terms of our moral obligation to take action.”

Cheung remains optimistic, despite work that constantly confronts him with the realities of climate change.

“It reminds me of how big a challenge we have. It reminds me of the opportunities we have to avoid the biggest problems.”

But he’s not kidding himself about the size of the problem.

“We need drastic action. We need all hands on deck.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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