Aim for the Stomach

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Why the threat to food supplies—and industrial agriculture’s role in global warming—is central to the discourse on climate change.

This piece was published originally by Capital & Main.

The writer Upton Sinclair once famously said, upon the reaction to his classic exposé of the slaughterhouse industry, The Jungle, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” He thought he was writing a book exposing the horrendous conditions for workers, and instead ignited outrage over the plight of the unsanitary slaughtering of animals and contamination of the meat.

When it comes to reporting on the climate crisis, let’s aim for the stomach instead of getting to it accidentally, as Sinclair did. Accelerating climate volatility is shining a harsh light on the frailty of our industrial food system. Usually with climate change we talk about heat, but let’s talk about the cold, or the lack of it. We humans may not like the cold, but a lot of fruit trees do. Cherries, apricots, peaches and some other tree fruits need the nighttime temperatures to drop during the winter, from December-February, in order to slow their metabolism—a sort of winter hibernation—to conserve energy before ripening in the spring. In California’s Central Valley, the nation’s leading producer of those and dozens of other different fruits, the cascade that starts with greenhouse gas pollution has been leading to dramatic drops in the number of what are known as winter chill hours. As a result, yields of those and other fruits are tapering off or the quality is declining.

In other food-growing regions of the United States, a similar process of winter warming is underway, as illustrated in this handy guide from Climate Central. Over the next 15 years, at least 23 states will experience significant decreases of at least two weeks or more in the number of freezing overnight temperatures. Some of those states, such as Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, are major grain producers and are discovering that the later, and warmer, onset of winter is providing an entry point to pests and their offspring that otherwise would have been killed by what used to be the post-summer cold weather.

And how about foods we may not grow here in the U.S., but most definitely consume on a major scale? Choose your crop, or just work your way through the day.

Morning: Coffee. The beans will be getting more rare, and expensive, as their range shrinks due to climate changes in Colombia.  Coffee growing regions in Central America are experiencing similarly shrinking coffee friendly terrain as the temperature rises and rainfall drops. Also, there’s an angle here on the perceived immigration crisis: The degradation of landscapes, many of them in what used to be coffee growing regions in Guatemala and Honduras, has compelled small farmers, no longer able to sustain themselves on the land, to join the ranks of displaced people and head north toward the U.S. frontier.

Afternoon: Avocado? Yields are expected to drop significantly over the coming 20 years, and yields of almonds, walnuts, cherries, oranges and table grapes are also expected to drop under current California climate scenarios.

Story continues