How will climate change affect our food system?

2 Mar 2021
5 min read

The diets we’re used to will be impacted dramatically if climate change goes unchecked.

At its basic level, food is a universal language. We all need it, it shapes our daily routines, and for many of us it informs our culture, too – what we eat, how we eat, when we eat. But our global food system is already far from perfect. The world population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050. With 3.4 billion more mouths to feed, and a growing appetite for meat and dairy in developing countries, global demand for food could increase by between 59% and 98%.

This means that agriculture around the world needs to step up production and increase yields – something that will prove increasingly challenging in the face of climate change. According to an IPCC report, this will put dire pressure on the ability of humanity to feed itself. Those already living in food poverty will be affected the worst, but for those fortunate to already have enough to eat, climate change will affect your food, too.

1.  Extreme weather harms livestock and crops

Scorching hot summers can cause heat stress in animals, particularly if they have no shade to shelter from the sun. Also, flooding and extreme winds can cause immediate damage to farms and agricultural land, and leave soil erosion and landslides in their wake. This poses a direct threat to livestock and crops, and can delay farm planting and rearing schedules, which can lead to food price volatility and insecurity. This will mean going without certain food items, or paying much more for them.

2.  Water scarcity

Climate change is also responsible for increasingly hot weather and periods of drought that lead to water shortages, making it much more expensive and harder to sustain crops and livestock. A massive drought back in 2011, for example, cost UK farmers £400 million. This can have serious knock-on effects. These kind of losses ruin livelihoods and put farmers out of business, creating extra pressure on remaining farms. Remember, these issues are global, so we can’t simply rely on importing produce from elsewhere, as other regions will struggle to support their own populations.

3.  Changing seasons

Growing seasons are starting earlier and getting hotter. While this might sound agreeable in theory, it presents a lot of agricultural challenges. An uptick in pest populations, for example, or crops growing before the soil holds enough water and nutrients to sustain them. Plants budding early and then falling victim to later spring frost is also an increasing problem.

4.  Wildfires

Wildfire is not a significant problem in the UK (yet), but the impact they have on farms and agricultural areas elsewhere around the world is enormous. Even farms that aren’t touched by flames are impacted, with crops affected by smoky taint and workers being sent home in the height of harvest season to avoid respiratory dangers. And again, this has a ripple effect throughout the global food system, ultimately driving up the cost of some items and putting them out of reach for many.

5.  Warmer weather affects food safety

People in developed nations are guilty of wasting food for lots of reasons, but in developing countries the reason is a lot more fundamental: safety. A lack of adequate refrigeration in many parts of the world means that food goes bad quickly, and warming temperatures will only exacerbate this. Additionally, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can decrease dietary iron, zinc, protein, and other macro- and micronutrients in certain crops, which could make it harder to maintain a healthy diet.

6.  Inhospitable conditions for sea life

Millions of people around the world rely on fish for their protein, but as oceans warm up and become more acidic, fish and shellfish are moving north in search of cooler waters. This has a number of consequences. Firstly, these species may face competition for food in these new territories, which could affect their survival rates. Secondly, warmer waters can alter the timing of fish migration and reproduction, and could speed up fish metabolism, resulting in their bodies taking up more mercury (which is produced by humans  burning fossil fuels). Mercury can have a toxic effect on human health. Fishing regulations will have to keep up with these changing ecosystems, jeopardising the livelihoods of fishermen.

The elephant in the room

This article looks at the impact climate change will have on our food systems, but the fact is, our food system is contributing to climate change. As the IPCC’s report illustrates, agriculture and other land uses comprise more than one-fifth of global CO2 emissions. This creates a vicious cycle: our fragile food system is dependent on practices that devastate the climate, which in turn will devastate our fragile food system.

But it’s not too late to halt the damage, and if enough of us made simple changes to the way we consume food, major companies and manufacturers would be pressured into making more environmentally-friendly, sustainable decisions. Get started with these actions:

The bottom line

Climate change affects us all in many different ways, but its impact on food will have one of the most notable disruptions to our everyday lives. The relationship between food and the climate is complex, and so it can feel like we’re trapped in a vicious cycle, but as experts say, there’s still time to find a way out of it. Make smarter food choices and encourage others to do the same – this sends a message to leaders and businesses that creating a fairer, more sustainable food system needs to be a global priority.



The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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