We May All Have to Cut Carbs Thanks to Climate Change

Sep 20, 2016 by


Rising global temperatures will harm wheat harvests—and poor countries will be hardest hit.

Beautiful woman with fresh fragrant bread. Crispy rolls. Bread Baking.
Photo Credit: SvetlanaFedoseyeva/Shutterstock

It seems that as the world’s temperature heats up, more of the world may be forced to go gluten-free.

Remember when climate change was commonly called “the greenhouse effect,” which seemed to suggest that at the very worst we might all end up living in a kind of perpetual summer surrounded by lush greenery? It would be a little humid, maybe, but might otherwise resemble a verdant, abundant, postindustrial Garden of Eden? Oh, those were the days.

On the contrary, climate experts and agricultural scientists have long warned that climate change will likely wreak havoc on the global food supply. A new study appears to offer some of the most convincing evidence to date on the serious effect global warming could have on one of the world’s most important crops, wheat.

More than 50 scientists based around the world—from China to the EU to the U.S.—participated in the research, the results of which were published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The team found that an increase of 1 degree Celsius in global temperature would cause worldwide wheat production to fall between 4 percent and almost 6.5 percent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international scientific body on the issue of global warming, predicts global temperatures to rise between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

All told, worldwide wheat production hit nearly 735 million metric tons last year, a record high that the 2016–17 harvest is expected to surpass. A loss of 4 percent—on the conservative end of the estimate—would equate to 30 million metric tons of wheat, while the 13 percent decline that might occur if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius would equate to a staggering 95 million metric tons. That’s almost double the entire current output of the United States. Such losses are not the direction we need to be going, especially given that the world population is expected to hit 9 billion by the middle of this century, spiking global food demand by 60 percent, according to the United Nations.

Adding insult to the injury that is already the general social injustice of climate change: The study predicts that countries in warmer regions will experience a more significant drop in wheat production, while those in cooler regions will fare better. Warmer, often poorer countries with lower emissions have long complained that they bear more of the burden of climate change than wealthier, heavier-polluting countries. The current study predicts, for instance, that an increase of 1 degree Celsius would mean a 3 percent decrease in wheat yields in China and an 8 percent decrease in India.

What’s the silver lining in all this? Not much for the layperson warily eyeing rising sea levels and worrying about the future of bread. But for the scientists involved, the study represented something of a breakthrough in that it employed three separate methods—two model simulations and a rigorous statistical analysis—all of which produced essentially the same results.

“This means we’re closer to more precisely predicting crop yields and their response to climate change worldwide, but we have shown this only for wheat so far,” Senthold Asseng, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida and a lead author of the study, said. “It’s the first time that a scientific study compared different methods of estimating temperature impacts on global crop production. Since the different methods point to very similar impacts, it improves our confidence in estimating temperature impact on global crop production.”

Good news for science. Probably not so great for dinner in the 22nd century.

This article originally appeared on TakePart.

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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