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Lack of Climate Change Impact Data No Excuse to Delay Action

By Jason Clay

Jason Clay is Senior Vice President, Markets and Executive Director, Markets Institute, for World Wildlife Fund and a member of CFI’s Board of Directors.

Around the world, agriculture production is being reduced. More extreme weather events are affecting row crops, as well as livestock production, tree crops and vegetable crops. One hurricane or monsoon can wipe out vegetable production for a whole season. When other factors such as yield variability and delayed planting are taken into consideration, the combined impact of climate change is decreasing food production by some 10% already, but it will increase.

With anecdotal data of extreme events from around the world, you would expect the world to be collecting reams of data on this food loss trend. But you would be wrong. When I say climate loss or preharvest loss could be the equivalent of 25% of production within 20 years, it’s a guestimate, but a conservative one, I think.

The truth is that we just don’t know for sure because no one is collating data, but regardless, we must act now to transform our food system.

COVID-19 Case Study

There is a lot of reporting about climate change. But there is a lack of consistent, collated global data. As a result, we don’t know what impacts are the biggest or most immediately important. We don’t know where to start.

We’ll never have complete data, but we have enough to see patterns and we can develop models and test different approaches. We simply have no choice but to build this plane while we fly it. And there’s very recent precedent to show how this can work.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we came to realize that we didn’t need to have perfect data and perfect science to move forward. We could still make informed choices based on the data we had and the steady pulse of new information coming in every day. If new data showed that our assumptions or approaches weren’t exactly right, we adapted.

We should do the same when addressing climate change.

Start today

The first step to assess climate change’s impact on food is to establish a baseline understanding of its impacts. I know from experience on the family farm that everything depends on rain – if there’s too much or too little or if it’s too severe, the consequences can be devastating. Weather extremes have always been around, but we are now having a 500-year storm every few years.

We must be able to separate the impacts of climate change from the normal variability of weather patterns. We start by looking backward using historical data to see when things started to change and then use that understanding to identify key variables and model forward.

Who’s “we?” It’s not the job of an NGO to measure the impact of climate change. Individual farmers can’t do this. It’s not the job of a company either. However, some countries are well placed for the task, the U.S. to name one. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should be the leading force in bringing public and private sectors together to assess agriculture production and identify the reasons for and extent of decline globally.

Right now, price increases are causing food insecurity around the world. But price hikes are never just because of one incident. It’s not just because of the war; production was already down for oil seeds and cereals in Argentina, Brazil and Canada. And China took its fertilizer off the market in June of 2021.

In the United States, close examination is showing that post-harvest loss of grain left in the field is as much as 5% higher than anyone expected. In South America, 20-25% of soy doesn’t make it to market because of bad roads and poor storage or lack of infrastructure.

An estimated 10% of food is never harvested – either because the crop wasn’t planted or because two or three crops had to be planted to get one that finally grew and produced. Chronic drought has a massive effect on agriculture that lasts long after the drought ends. A University of Missouri study found that after a year of drought, it takes two to three years to recover the organic matter in the soil; a two-year drought takes five to 10 years.

These are just some of the factors contributing to declining agriculture production. It’s time we start keeping track of the causes and effects.

It’s an old saying but it’s never been truer: you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Growing for tomorrow

Everyone is waiting for the world to go back to “normal” after the pandemic. That’s not going to happen. We shouldn’t want it to. The food system needs to be transformed. To be more resilient, it must address producer livelihoods, GHG emissions and other externalities as well as consider new business models and tools (e.g., long-term contracts).

The food system must be more agile to anticipate problems rather than react to them. If we’re not, we will always be behind and strategies will cost more but be less effective.

There is no better time than the present to start taking a close look at climate change and where we have been so we can prepare a path forward. Let’s gather information and let’s act – yes, both at the same time. We may not have everything we want, but we have everything we need to get started today. Because tomorrow never comes.