I have an affinity with the Bordeaux region. I used to holiday there with my children before the yearly month of wall-to-wall dad jokes was repudiated and replaced by empty nest syndrome and, for my children, forays elsewhere with backpackers and boyfriends.
Changed beyond recognition
However, the warm glow of memory was erased by my experience of returning for the first time since my children grew up, when I stayed with friends in the farming region of the Charente last summer. The area was experiencing even more extreme temperatures than the UK and for much longer. Their heat wave lasted months with record temperatures lasting until December.
As I approached by train, the horizon was cloaked in smoke, a curtain of which surrounded our farm for the entire week’s stay. A heat induced tornado had ripped through the nearby town of Riberac, ripping off roofs and stoving in cars in a band stretching from the Gironde into the Dordogne.
The trademark sunflower fields of the region were unrecognisable. No longer with faces to the sun, the stalks were singed brown and the flowers were wilted and downcast.
But it wasn’t just the sunflower industry that had been decimated.
The summer of 2022 saw French maize crops drop 28% below forecasts (in Italy, the worst drought in 70 years resulted in a 45% drop in corn production, fruit harvests fell by 15% and milk by 20%).
Seeing the writing on the wall, a neighbouring farmer had given up on his tomato cultivation and had started to grow Spirulina, a highly nutritious species of algae that is easy to grow in difficult conditions. This is one of the most concentrated foods on earth and has been a lifesaver in famine-struck areas. This farmer had glimpsed a fast-approaching world where traditional crops would increasingly fail. The writing on the wall spelt famine.
Last year the Committee on Climate Change warned that without urgent action we are heading for a possible 4°C of warming above pre industrial levels. This would lead to the desertification of most of the world’s breadbaskets between the 50th parallels. Saharan deserts would expand into southern and central Europe with viable agriculture pushed towards Northern Canada, Northern Russia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Western Antarctica, and Patagonia.
We are also facing self-imposed ecological breakdown making the threat to our food supplies two pronged, both from climate change and land management. Often these two strands reinforce and amplify each other.
Deforestation for cattle or crops exacerbates climate change through the reduction of CO2 removal provided by the forests; methane from cows increases the warming which in turn subjects soil to increased flooding. Cattle farming accounts for 18% of greenhouse methane emissions
And agriculture emits 54.6 million tons of CO2 per year much from degrading soils. 50% of our arable topsoil has been lost in 150 years. It takes hundreds and thousands of years to form an inch of topsoil, and many more centuries before it is fertile. Over 2 million hectares of soil are now at risk of erosion, and intensive agriculture has resulted in a 23% loss of productivity (some, including Michael Gove, have warned we have only 60 harvests left).
The degradation of the soil in turn has required an increased use of pesticides.A 300% increase in food crop demand since 1970 has led to monocultural farming which makes soil susceptible to pests, pathogens and diseases, so farmers turn to chemical products to fight diseases, and fertilisers to encourage crops to continue growing: fertiliser use is up 500% in 5 years and the nitrous oxide released is 300 times stronger a greenhouse gas than CO2.
The knock on from this policy has been a decline of around 83% in worm populations over the last 27 years and a 76% loss of pollinating insects, especially bees. There is now a severe threat to the 75% of global food crop types that rely on animal pollination.
Fish stocks, too, are either under threat from climate change induced ocean acidification or unsustainable harvesting.
50% of live coral cover of reefs has been lost since the 1870s and, along with shellfish and plankton, they will be wiped out by rising acidity and algae starving the oceans of oxygen. Without prey, fish stocks will decline rapidly. Prof Petrovsky of Leicester University reports that the ocean is also losing phytoplankton at a rate of 1% a year. Not only does this plankton oxygenate the oceans, it provides 70% of the earth’s atmospheric oxygen – you might well gasp!
These dead zones are not just due to global heating; low oxygen coastal ecosystems have been exacerbated by fertiliser run-off, sewage (a current hot issue), animal waste, aquaculture and the accumulation of nitrogen from the burning of fossil fuels.
Although we have seen, as in Pakistan, the disastrous flooding resulting from increased incidents of extreme weather, the greater threat for our food supplies is the other end of the extreme: drought. Even at 1.5°C , hundreds of millions will suffer drought downstream of the Andes and Himalayas as the glaciers abate. Such changes in turn will impact us as half of our food is imported from already water stressed countries.
Worst case scenario?
Since the Committee on Climate Change projection,Chatham House has further predicted that on our current trajectory, there is a slim chance of 7°C of warming. This is not a survivable scenario for humanity and it is one of which Victoria Prentis, Banbury MP and former Minister of State at DEFRA, admitted to being terrified.
In this scenario we would lose almost all life on Earth. Most of the oxygenating land on Earth would turn to desert. Worse, the ocean itself would stop producing oxygen and would start releasing highly toxic hydrogen sulphide, the process that led 250 million years ago to the great Permian Extinction , one of the Earth’s most extreme extinction events.
Where to now?
The solutions are obvious but seemingly lost on policy makers. Rather than halting oil exploration at the urging of every global expert scientific and economic body, the UK Government is putting its faith in the development of untried or tested carbon capture technology, or even the less likely breakthrough of nuclear fusion, to offset its pathological attachment to fossil fuels.
Even if developed successfully, neither of these 2 processes has a chance of being scaled up in time for humanity.
The government has also, once again, approved the use of bee-killing neonicotinoids which, given previous encouraging initiatives, such as its Healthy Bees Plan 2030, displays an extraordinary cognitive dissonance.
David Beasley, the outgoing head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, warns that up to 350 million people are “marching toward starvation”, a number larger than the population of the United States. He doubted that the programme would raise as much as 40% of the $23 billion needed in aid.
The tin ear of government
Henry Dimbleby warns in “Ravenous”, a distillation of his food strategy commissioned by the Government: “if global warming goes above 2°C, the combined effect of sea level rises, droughts, heatwaves, floods and insect infestations will make it impossible to feed the world using our current technologies.” The Government’s response was largely to ignore it.
Tipping points of no return are imminent. For all the Government’s “world beating” hubris on its supposed climate action, global CO2 emissions continue to climb unabated. It is time the Government registered the urgency and stopped the engineered distraction of a culture war in which they attempt to frame climate anxiety as a leftist issue. Starvation is not solely a concern of the left or the poor, or of demographic groups unlikely to vote Conservative…
No one is safe.