Over the past decade there have been increasing references in the media about climate change’s disruptive impact on food production. But there is already a more systemic impact on the global food system that we are missing — what I call climate loss.
Climate loss is pre-harvest food loss: the uncalculated losses farmers suffer from not planting a crop, changing crops due to weather, or extreme weather reducing or wiping out a crop before harvest. It can also be caused by increased predation, pests, and diseases that are triggered by climate change.
This is not a new issue. Farmers have long had years when they could not plant crops, or at least the desired crop, because of weather. But the situation is now more extreme than ever.
Two years ago, I suggested that climate loss could be as large as 10% of the expected harvest. I reached out to the USDA, the World Bank, and the UN FAO to see if they were noticing the same trends. At that time, they weren’t, and they had neither the budget nor an interest to pursue it.
Apparently, that has changed. A recent FAO report, The Impact of Disasters on Agriculture and Food Security, found that over the last 30 years an average of $123 billion per year was lost due to disasters in agricultural crop and livestock production. The report acknowledged that the figure may be even larger if fisheries, aquaculture, and forest food products were included. Disasters were defined as serious disruptions to the functioning of a community or society.
The report found that losses were highest in lower- and lower-middle-income countries, totaling as much as 15% of their agricultural GDP. The results suggest that small island states are also more affected than average. The report concludes that this is an urgent issue, and that to inform effective action, we need to improve data systems and information on the impact of climate-induced losses on all food subsectors.
The FAO report has brought together the best available information about climate loss. However, it has not captured the trends that must have been present in the data, i.e., the varying impacts of climate change on food production. This is a problem with averages — in this case, over a 30-year period. It is unlikely that the impact has been equal over 30 years. It is likely that the impacts for the last 5-10 years have been larger than the 30-year average. After all, the effects of climate change are increasing, their frequency is increasing, and the scale is unprecedented. Climate loss is likely to be even greater moving forward.
Another issue affecting global food production will be “transition loss.” Climate loss includes the crop that is lost in the field pre-harvest due to extreme or changing weather or causes such as pests and diseases intensified by stress. Transition loss is the reduced production caused by the shift of crops from areas where people know how to produce them to areas where they don’t.
New producers could bring innovation and new technology over time so that they could become more productive than today’s producers, but it will take time. However, many existing producers will likely decide that they are going to continue to produce what they know and have equipment for. It could be older or cash-strapped farmers, among others. This will reduce productivity levels precisely when we need them to be increasing.
While there has been a lot of attention on this year’s extreme drought, in some regions it has been going on for 20 years. We can expect more of the same. The 2030s are projected to be a decade of drought in most of the world. Each year, farmers will lose crops, income, and a bit more of their safety net as drought undermines their resilience. All this when we will need to be feeding more people who will be consuming more. If we manage what we measure, maybe it is time to start measuring climate loss.