5 Agricultural Fields Facing Climate Change

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There is overwhelming consensus among scientists that the Earth is warming. Yet there is less agreement that humanity’s carbon emissions are to blame, and even less consensus that any corrective measures will help at this point. But while scientists, politicians and the public often debate this topic at a detached distance, it’s a more personal issue for many people — those in agricultural industries that will deal first-hand with a warming planet, and may already be seeing the effects. Here is how global warming could affect several diverse food industries, and a look at some measures already being taken to fight the issue.


5. Wine: Grapes Sensitive to Climate Change

Grapes are extremely sensitive to variables such as temperature and humidity. © Zoi Koraki

Dire news hit the wine industry in 2017, as global wine production hit a 56-year low. The International Organization of Vine and Wine blamed extreme weather in Italy, France and Spain for the decline in production. While climatologists warn about attributing isolated or one-year weather events to climate change, vintners worry that the conditions seen in 2017 will become more common in the near future. Grapes are extremely sensitive to even slight variations in such variables as temperature and humidity. As a Denver Post story notes, at certain temperatures, “Riesling picks up a gasoline flavor.” That’s obviously not a wine that would be in any connoisseur’s cellar.

However, observers note that while many vintners might suffer in a warming world, others will pursue the profession as the climate becomes more favorable in their region. That’s a common refrain among those who shrug off the possible effects of climate change. Sounds great in theory, but it’s not like vineyards that have in some cases been in the family for generations will be able to literally pick up stakes and move a couple of hundred miles away to a more temperate climate zone.


4. Maple Syrup: Fewer Trees Poses Problems

A warming climate could mean far fewer maple trees to tap for syrup. © Kyle Spradley/CAFNR

Maple syrup producers gathered at an event in Windham, Maine, in March 2018 to lament the effect of climate change on their industry. Producers are already seeing a shorter tapping season, more unpredictable weather events, and trees that are producing less syrup. Mark Cooper of Coopers Maple Products told the Bangor Daily News, “We’ve had below average production over the last seven years, compared to the previous 20 years. Those wide swings of temperatures are something we didn’t use to deal with.” To cope with the issues, some producers are using new technology to help maximize sap extraction, but the expense involved might drive many smaller producers out of business. A bigger issue looms on the horizon, as scientists expect climate change could wipe out 40 percent of the maples in the region.


3. Fishing: Warmer Oceans Could Decrease Yields

Fishing yields could be hurt by warming ocean temperatures. © Bien Stephenson

A 2016 study by University of British Columbia scientists estimated that if climate change continues at the current rate, it could wipe out roughly 10 percent of the world’s fishing industry by the year 2050. The report, published on Nature.com, notes that changes in ocean temperatures, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation patterns could negatively affect fish. Warmer temperatures could hamper fish reproduction, and could lead to decreases in maximum body sizes.

While a warming climate is expected to result in better fishing conditions in higher latitudes, it might have a negative effect on conditions in the tropics. That change alone could spell trouble for many cultures that rely on fishing as not just an occupation but as a key source of nutrition. That study estimated the global fisheries industry directly or indirectly employs as many as 820 million people.


2. Coffee: Less Land Means Lost Livelihoods

Coffee has more than doubled in price in the past 15 years. Credit: Michael Allen Smith @INeedCoffee

Media outlets have been reporting for years about the potential effects of climate change on coffee production with headlines such as “Coffee and Climate: What’s Brewing with Climate Change?” and “How the coffee industry is about to get roasted by climate change.” Coffee drinkers have surely noticed as the price of coffee has gone up in recent years. The cost of coffee was less than 50 cents per pound in 2002; by 2011 it had briefly skyrocketed to $3 per pound. It’s currently around $1.20 per pound.

Most consumers probably don’t notice the higher prices. But scientists worry that a warmer climate could mean trouble for millions of primarily poor, rural coffee growers around the world. Coffee plants thrive in cooler, mountainous areas in the tropics. As the climate warms, there is less land suitable for coffee. One study released in 2017 estimated that the coffee-growing areas in Latin America could be reduced by almost 90 percent by the year 2050. Not only could there be less coffee, experts warn, but the quality could be greatly diminished. That’s something to think about the next time you enjoy a hot cup of java.


1. Corn: Lower Yields Would Mean More Expensive Beef, Poultry Products

Higher temperatures could mean lower corn yields, and thus higher prices for beef, eggs and dairy products. © Max Sang

Rising temperatures have benefited U.S. corn production in a couple of ways. The growing season is slightly longer, and extreme variations in weather, from drought to excessive rain, has led to the development of tougher, more weather-resistant seeds. Now for the bad news: A 2017 study published in Nature Communications found that corn yields diminish for each day the temperature exceeds 86 degrees Fahrenheit. While irrigation can mitigate the effect, that itself is becoming a more problematic issue as aquifers in the Corn Belt are under stress.

Many observers expect that the future will see decreased corn yields, which will mean higher corn prices. That wouldn’t spell the end of eating an ear or two of corn at your summer picnic; contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of the corn produced in the U.S. is actually eaten by consumers. Somewhere between one-half to two-thirds of corn goes to feed livestock. So decreased corn yields would mean higher prices for meat, dairy and eggs.


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