When we talk about food and climate change, we often hear about the personal decisions we can make to help the environment, such as limiting red meat intake, buying seasonal fruits and vegetables, and avoiding shady greenwashing. However, the truth of food in an ever-changing climate is that so many need to move beyond our plates and even our countries.
According to a new study published in Nature Communications this month, a significant portion—nearly half—of the European Union’s food imports will come from areas with high and extremely high drought intensity. By 2050, assuming emissions stay on the RCP 6.0 concentration trajectory (a climate model where CO2 levels fall slightly below business-as-usual), 44 percent of EU imported agricultural will be in jeopardy. Even with drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, 37 percent of the population will be at risk in the next 25 years.
Compare that to today, when only 7% of agricultural imports for the region originate from areas with a medium-high or high risk of drought. According to the report, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Turkey are among the most vulnerable to future drought.
“Everyone talks about their own country when it comes to climate change impact,” says Ertug Ercin, director of Amsterdam-based research organization R2Water and lead author of the new study. “It’s all over Twitter if there’s an unusual drought in the UK. However, if anything significant occurs in South America or Africa, it will receive less attention.”
According to the study, “supplies of certain crops to the EU may be affected soon due to increased drought in other regions of the world.” “The most climate-vulnerable imported items include coffee, cocoa, sugar cane, oil palm, and soybean.”
That might result in a “breadbasket shock,” in which agricultural hotspots weaken due to increasingly extreme climate conditions such as droughts and heatwaves, causing havoc throughout the global food supply chain.
Soybeans, for example, are one of the EU’s most important imports, with annual exports of 30 to 35 million tonnes. (The majority of that supply use as animal feed in the meat and dairy industries.) Compared to the fewer than a million tonnes produced in the region, this is a significant difference.
According to the study’s authors, even minor disruptions in imports can cause price surges and supply chain disruptions in the EU’s dairy and meat industries, which feed other countries. Some European countries were among the world’s leading exporters of dairy products as of December last year. A halt in soy growing would directly impact global imports of cheese, cream, and yogurt.
These findings, according to Teresa Brás. A postdoctoral researcher at the National Laboratory of Energy and Geology who was not involved in the study points to a need to “redesign EU food and trade policies given higher investment in food imports and market diversification. While promoting climate adaptation and fair and ethical food policies in non-EU suppliers,” according to Carbon Brief.
Recent climate changes indicate that re-strategizing is even more necessary. Droughts in the United States have grabbed international headlines in the last week. At the same time, harsh weather continues to afflict countries like Madagascar, where families are surviving mostly on uncooked red cactus fruits, wild foliage, and locusts following months of fatal droughts.
Madagascar sends a significant portion of its goods to Europe, with France accounting for roughly 20% of total exports. Brazil, one of the EU’s most important trading partners, is also experiencing a catastrophic drought in its typically lush jungles and wetlands.
“Addressing the global climate crisis is in our economic self-interest,” Ercin says. “It doesn’t matter where the effect occurs—it [affects] us in the end. It’s critical to raise awareness about changes taking place outside of our borders.”