This story is part of the pessimistic argument for the future of the planet in our special issue on Earth Day. Read the optimistic argument and the rest of our stories here.
Even in the best growing conditions—with moderate weather, predictable rainfall, and rounded seasons—growing food is hard. Add in climate volatility, erratic floods, and frequent drought, and the entire food system becomes an equation of anxiety, hope, and in some regions, dread. “We have a climate change threat to our food system and not many strategies to deal with it,” says Michael Puma of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
What will that mean for our plates? Global commodities such as corn and wheat are susceptible to dramatic shifts in growing regions and crop output. The UN says that without strategies for adapting, lower staple yields will lead to shortages and increased prices for human and livestock consumption, hitting developing tropical countries the hardest. More charismatic foods, like the ones shown here, will morph in appearance, nutritional value, availability, and price as growing regions shift and farmers turn to warm-weather crops. Longer growing seasons are generally good news for farmers and plants, but lack of rainfall or insufficient cold weather could stunt even the best-laid seeds and plans.
Innovation will be part of foods’ evolution, in the field and in the lab. Seed breeding and gene editing are helping some fruits and vegetables grow faster and bigger to outrun a season’s heightened probability of flood or drought. Other technologies help food last longer to be shipped farther, in some cases not requiring refrigeration at all.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the planet won’t lose much arable land before 2050 and that few foods will disappear completely—but over the coming decades, crops and diets will evolve. Retaining the world’s favorite foods and making them accessible to more people will require eating smarter, says Charlotte Streck, director of Dutch-based think tank Climate Focus. That means less meat, more plants, and getting all you can from as close as possible.
Almost three-quarters of coffee comes from small farms. Warmer weather and plant diseases may drive up the price.
This fruit’s trees don’t like high heat. If growers shift to kinder environs, it could lengthen shipping distances.
Ocean acidification affects crustaceans’ health—and taste. Future shrimp may be less palatable, one study says.
Warming water threatens this and other cold water fish. Less wild breeding may spur more farming to maintain supply.
The beverage will endure, but changes in terroirs will force vintners to find ways to maintain wines’ signature tastes.
Early frosts, heavy rain, and wind halved Italy’s production last year. Such extremes could limit crops in many places.
So far, warming has expanded the tropical fruit’s growing area—and raised the risk of fungi that devastate plants.
This story appears in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.