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Fork in the Road: Code. Red. For. Our. Food. Supply.

The IPCC clearly s-p-e-l-l-s out what’s in store if we don’t rein in climate change
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The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a “code red” for humanity—and our food supply.

“Code red for humanity” was the brilliant headline-grabber from the UN’s secretary-general when the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the disastrous state of our climate came out. It doesn’t get any more brutal—or honest—than that. 

“Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 report is a code red for humanity,” stated UN Secretary-General António Guterres when the report was released Aug. 9. “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

On goes the surprisingly succinct but effective statement, outlining things like the current state of our climate: “The internationally agreed threshold of 1.5°C is perilously close … We are already at 1.2°C and rising.” And what we need to get us there: “The viability of our societies depends on leaders from government, business and civil society uniting behind policies, actions and investments that will limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.”  

You can read Mr. Guterres’ full statement on the UN’s media site, here, and the IPCC’s full report here

I hesitated to write about the IPCC’s report this week. It’s been pretty front and centre in the news cycle for a while, and these days it’s all “gimme, gimme news,” whether it’s doomscrolling or other forms of hypervigilant news intake. But then I went, “nope.” The devastation and fear in Haiti and Afghanistan; our ever-increasing COVID numbers—anybody even remember the anxious “code red” howl from the depths of the UN?

So let me grab your kite string and reel you back to the most painfully critical existential issue—not just of our time but for so many generations to come, I can’t even count. Seven generations? Meh, more like 700.

COUNT THE MANY THREATS TO OUR FOOD SUPPLY

The first time I saw Lake Mead live, I was sweet 16 (almost). It was the summer of Expo ‘67 in Montreal and our family was on a camping trip to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, where my Auntie Claire worked as a server for caterers doing up posh parties for the likes of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Those were more innocent times.

Created by building the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Lake Mead is the largest U.S. water reservoir, serving some 40 million people, including Las Vegas and San Diego. It also provides water to irrigate millions of acres of farmland in California, Arizona, Mexico and beyond. In 1967, it was a startling blue against all that red desert soil, and full to the brim. Last week, for the first time in its history, U.S. federal officials declared a water shortage for dwindling Lake Mead. 

California produce accounts for about 70 per cent of all the fruits and veggies we eat in B.C. 

According to a provincial government report on food reliance, B.C. farmers produce only about 48 per cent of the food we eat. The 2006 report estimated that to produce enough food for the estimated population in 2025—only four years from now—we would need to increase by 49 per cent the amount of farmland with access to irrigation. That’s land typically nearest to urban centres. Tell that to your elected representative next time she or he faces a rezoning application to remove a chunk of land from the agricultural land reserve. 

Most people don’t realize it but the Fraser Valley has 1.4 times the amount of irrigated agricultural land that the Okanagan has. 

A 2017 report by the Partnership for Water Sustainability in B.C. agreed with that 50-per-cent increase, saying we need some 285,000 hectares of irrigated farmland in B.C. 

The Fraser River was at the heart of the partnership’s concerns. The authors estimated that, as just one example, the water supply window for Richmond and Delta from the Fraser could be reduced from 15 to 24 hours per day at normal river flow down to only three hours a day due to sea-level rise (you can’t irrigate crops with salt water!) and drought, like we’ve seen this summer. 

According to the IPPC report’s chapter on food security, there are “many routes” by which climate change can impact food security and human health.

The biggest elephant in the fields, of course, is the negative impact our climate disaster is having on actual food-crop yields. Then there are the less direct impacts on things like pests and diseases; pollination services (our dear bees); and changing CO2 in the atmosphere negatively affecting biomass and the nutritional quality of food. 

Probably the biggest secondary impact we’re already seeing big-time from only 1.2 C change is the availability of fresh (not partially salty), reliable water. Not too little, like Lake Mead and this summer’s drought in Western Canada, including B.C. Not too much, like the flooding Pemberton farmers faced in June with too much snowmelt too fast. 

Then factor in the more opaque impacts: Food safety risks during transport and storage that can be exacerbated by a changing climate. Direct impacts of changing weather on human health when agricultural workers are exposed to extreme temperatures, which stress human physiology, so people might need more food to cope while they’re simultaneously being hampered to produce it.

All these factors can alter both physical health as well as cultural health, through changing the amount, safety and quality of food available.

As for what to do about all this, you know the drill: Eat less meat. Eat locally. Drive less. Ditch the gas-guzzler. And don’t forget there’s a federal election September 20. I suggest you take Mr. Guterres’ point about climate leadership to heart and read each party’s platform on climate change very, very carefully. Then get active, and vote accordingly. 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who first learned about the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) from Aussies on the road in Asia in 1988—the year the panel was created to assess climate change.