The SAGE Encyclopedia of Food Issues, edited by food historian Ken Albala, has just been published ( It is loaded with interesting and useful material.

My own contribution is an article in which I describe the likely ways that climate change may affect our future food supplies. Here are some of the main points. See especially the one at the end, which should give us all pause for thought:

  • The effect of temperature increases on the global production of some basic crops is already beginning to be noticed. Global maize and wheat production, for example, declined by 3.8% and 5.5% respectively between 1980 and 2008, relative to the yields that might have been expected in the absence of global warming. To put these figures in context, the percentage declines are equivalent to losing the whole of the annual production of maize in Mexico and wheat in France respectively.
  • Declining food production is only the beginning of the story. Global warming, and the predicted consequential changes in global weather patterns, will affect all aspects of the food supply chain. It is not just a matter of food production, where temperature changes can affect the length of a growing season, and changes in rainfall patterns can affect yields. Climate change will also affect other aspects of food availability, such as distribution and exchange. It will affect access to food (affordability, allocation, and preference). And it will affect the utilization of food (nutritional and societal values and food safety).
  • The direct consequences of these changes on food supplies are likely to be severe. Higher temperatures will extend the growing season for many crops (in the last 60 years the growing season for crops in the Northern Hemisphere has already become two weeks longer). Longer growing seasons will mean that that plants will need more water to stop them from drying out, with the risks of crop failure and fire damage thus increasing when water is not available. In semi-arid regions (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South-East Asia), droughts could dramatically reduce crop yields and livestock numbers.
  • The indirect consequences of global weather changes are likely to be equally severe. Milder winters may fail to kill dormant insects, so that infestations in following seasons will be larger and more damaging. Shifts in seasons (Spring is already coming earlier in both hemispheres) may affect the life cycles of plants and their pollinators differently, so that their life cycles will diverge and pollination will become less efficient. Migrating animals will have to seek food sources earlier.
  • Many studies have shown that the largely negative effects of climate change on food supplies will be borne by those who are least fitted to cope – that is, the people and communities of the under-developed third world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. These are the communities whose circumstances render them least able to handle the increasingly frequent short-term shocks, and the longer-term changes in regional weather patterns, that climate change will bring.

 There is much more detail, and supporting references, in the full article.

Share This