Food. Water. Air. These are the basics of life, without which we die. So if climate change is threatening them, perhaps humans should take relief measures.

There is good news and bad news looking at food, but mostly bad news. (Water and air will be dealt with in a future column.)

Genetic modification and other technological breakthroughs in food production is the good news. GM faces many political and cultural problems of acceptance, but already is making significant production increases for food plants and animals. Scientists also are on the verge of chemical harvests, turning biological stews into wholesome food. University of Nebraska experts are involved in this research now.

Genetics may not reach the fantastic results of the earlier Green Revolution in food production in emerging nations, but it will have an impact. Unfortunately, the earlier rapid increase in growing food products has been blunted by the soil damage from the increased fertilizer and pesticide used.

The bad news now, and into the far future, is that climate change is severely affecting food production across the planet, along with both population increases and rising affluence and diet changes of a growing middle class in emerging economies. Paradoxically, droughts and floods are two of the most damaging aspects of climate change.

Here are some facts:

• The 2011, Texas drought cost a record $8 billion in crop and livestock losses and up to 500 million forest trees died. Urban forests lost another 5.6 million trees, along with $280 million in economic and environmental values.

• Extremely hot summers that once covered less than 1 percent of Earth’s surface (from 1951-1980), “now covers about 10 percent of the land area,” according to one analysis. “We conclude that extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were caused by global warming.”

• The Earth Policy Institute of Washington, D.C., warns that long-term food trends are worrisome, especially for soybeans. In 1955, “China produced the same amount of soybeans it consumed, but since then production has stayed the same and consumption has jumped fivefold.”

• Wheat prices have seen “massive price surges” in recent years, due in part to wildfires in Russia, heat waves in Australia and flooding in Pakistan, according to Oxfam, an international relief organization.

• An Oxfam report also notes that “this could be just a taste of things to come because in the next few decades the build-up of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere could greatly increase the risk of droughts, flooding, pest infestation and water scarcity for agriculture systems already under tremendous stress.”

In a world where millions of poor people spend up to 75 percent of their annual income on food, feeding an additional 2 billion people by 2050 (to 9 billion) “in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.”

But hunger isn’t just in poor countries. A 2010 census report by the Center for Rural Affairs looks at rural food insecurity (the new buzzword for hunger) in 10 Great Plains states. The regional total showed 12.7 percent (11.5 percent in Nebraska) of the population suffered food insecurity (a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life or limited availability of nutritionally adequate foods, according to the USDA).

For children under 18, the regional figure was 23.8 percent (Nebraska, 18.9 percent). Metropolitan areas were better off, with 12.2 percent insecurity for the total population and 17.2 percent for children (Nebraska was 11.4 percent and 17.2 percent).

The Food Bank of Lincoln has seen a 190 percent growth in people served in its 16 southeast Nebraska counties from 2006 to 2010, according to Director Scott Young. It provides food to 50,940 people annually (including 20,140 children). “The food goes to everyone, with lots of single moms with children, seniors and the working poor,” Young said.

While economics and the recession are deciding factors for food insecurity on the Great Plains breadbasket now, the problem will only increase with food scarcity from more population, severe weather events and overall global warming.

What to do about all this? Oxfam says pass a worldwide, legally binding climate change treaty with teeth, close the greenhouse gas emissions gap and deliver government aid to help poor people tackle climate change.

Francis Moul of Lincoln is an environmental historian. This is the second of several columns on climate change.


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