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Study: Climate change threatens nearly 95% of food production in vulnerable regions

(CN) — Rising temperatures will have a devastating effect on global food production, according to new estimates released Friday. By the year 2100, one-third of humanity’s farmland could fall under conditions in which no food is currently grown.

Plants may love carbon dioxide, but they also need water and stable temperatures to flourish, as do livestock. Bump the CO2 up too high and the pendulum swings toward drought and famine. With global populations expected to continue growing, merely maintaining current food production levels would be bad enough, and vastly more so if large swaths of crop and pasture land steadily become barren.

The authors of a new study published Friday in the journal One Earth define a novel concept called “safe climactic space,” or the conditions under which food production developed and thrived in the modern era thanks to a combination of rainfall, temperature and aridity. Land deemed to be in safe climactic space is responsible for 95% of current global food production.

“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,” explained Matti Kummu, professor of global water and food issues at Aalto University in Finland, in a related statement.

The authors looked at 27 of the most important food crops and seven species of livestock to understand the threat posed to the global food supply by climate change. They propose two future scenarios: one in which emissions are cut drastically and the temperature increase is limited, and another where greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.

Plants and animals can and have adapted to rising temperatures in the past, but at the current pace that’s simply not possible. Globally, up to 31% of food crops and 34% of livestock could be pushed past their safe climactic space limits by the end of the century without intervention. The authors predict the most vulnerable regions are in South and Southeast Asia and Africa’s Sudano-Sahelian Zone.

“Food production as we know it developed under a fairly stable climate, during a period of slow warming that followed the last ice age,” said doctoral candidate Matias Heino, co-author of the study, in a related statement. “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.”

Without major changes limiting the global average temperature increase to between 2.7 degrees and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, in line with the Paris Climate Accord, up to 95% of food production in countries like Benin, Cambodia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana and Suriname will be impacted by the year 2100, according to the study. In the best-case scenario, that could be limited to an 8% impact on crops and 5% on livestock, which could still spell hardship for millions.

Because crops and livestock have never been produced at scale under such conditions, maintaining sufficient food supplies would require novel approaches and new technologies that the most vulnerable regions are least-equipped to deploy. In places that already suffer from rampant food insecurity, it’s unlikely that energy intensive climate-controlled greenhouses and indoor vertical farms are going to become the norm in the near future. Overall, 20% of the world’s crops and 18% of livestock are produced in regions under the greatest threat from climate change, but with the least resilience.

As is often the case, countries that played the smallest part in the problem are expected to bear the brunt of its consequences. By contrast, in 52 of the 177 countries studied — including most of Europe — the food production system isn’t expected to exceed the safe climactic limit boundaries established by the authors.

“Future solutions should be concentrated on actions that would both mitigate climate change and increase resilience in food systems and societies, increase food production sustainability that respects key planetary boundaries, adapt to climate change by, for example, crop migration, and foster local livelihoods in the most critical areas,” concluded the authors in their study. “All this calls for global partnerships and solidarity, as well as innovative cross-sectoral thinking, to find the needed solutions.”