Twenty-First Century Poses Global Food Supply Challenges

Nine of the top ten warmest years in NASA’s 134 year record of average global temperature have occurred in the past fifteen years. The EPA says global sea levels have risen by about six inches in the past 100 years, and the United Nations estimates that the global population will top 9 billion by 2050.

The product of these factors poses an unprecedented and unique challenge in the future – ensuring that the world’s booming population has enough food to sustain itself.

“As the carbon dioxide goes up, the temperature goes up,” said Yelda Hangun-Balkir, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the chemistry department, and director of the environmental science program.

“By 2100, it will go up by two to four degrees.”

“The carbon dioxide concentrations are going up because of fossil fuels,” Hangun-Balkir said.

Hangun-Balkir has no doubt that the changes in Earth’s climate are human-activity related. According to her, the temperature change and carbon dioxide increase are “totally, directly proportional.”

The changes in climate are going to have a massive effect on human ability to produce food, especially for a booming population.

Kevin Farley, Ph.D. and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, warns of the increasing concentration of toxins in the environment. “We are releasing volatile organic chemicals into the environment,” Farley said. These chemicals can act as, “precursors for ozone foundation, which then, may only yield a five percent dropoff in crop yield. But if we’re trying to increase [food production] by 50 percent, a five percent dropoff ends up being a really big deal.”

They also pose a threat to the water supply. Many well-intentioned chemicals end up doing more harm than good– especially pesticides and fertilizers. “What happens [is] the nutrients wash off the fields and the pesticides wash off the fields and get into our surface waters,” Farley said. To complicate matters, “the cleaning process takes a long time.”

The change in the climate causes new worries that extend beyond water quality. According to Farley, “water supply becomes an issue, even without worrying about whether it’s clean or not.”

According to the United States Drought Monitor, much of the west coast, including California – the nation’s largest state for agriculture – is under “exceptional drought.”

Regardless, Farley holds out hope, and puts his faith in technology and human adaptability. “What you’re seeing now is they’ve been able to cut down on their water consumption, and that’s both the agricultural side and the domestic side,” Farley said. “When there is a need for a technological advancement, some technological advancement will be made.”

Where climate change will have the biggest impact, ultimately, is in developing countries, argues Natalia Boliari, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics. These countries, whose populations are growing quickly, are seeing a marked rise in the demand for food. Despite this, the economic ambitions of many governments in this category are contrary to the needs of the people. “When you have population increase at home, there is demand for food. But at the same time, your policies are arranged in a way that you export whatever you produce,” Boliari said of these countries. Boliari also attributes some of the price increases to speculation and general uncertainty.

That uncertainty has been mounting in recent years, according to Boliari. However, Boliari does not notice a general trend toward more expensive food. “If anything, in the overall, there is a decrease in prices, compared to fifty or sixty years ago,” Boliari stated. “It is about fluctuations and volatility. That is the problem. And climate change is playing a role there. It’s increasing volatility and bringing shocks.”

Those shocks to which she referred can be anything ranging from severe drought and storms, to new varieties of pests, according to Hangun-Balkir.

Despite the trend of volatility, food prices to Manhattan College suppliers are going up, Brian Conway of Gourmet Dining said via email. “Proteins have increased the most. All poultry, meat, and fish.”

These emerging challenges have raised awareness about food waste. Depending on the source, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten.

Conway stated that Gourmet Dining attempts to have zero waste in production, and the largest sources of waste are students – especially in Locke’s Loft.

Food security has been an aim of Campus Ministry & Social Action director Lois Harr said. CMSA hosts several events annually, including a hunger banquet and several retreats and collaborates with local foodbanks. In prior years, Gourmet Dining, in collaboration with CMSA, agreed to place all the food waste produced by students in clear garbage bags displayed outside Thomas Hall.

Though CMSA operates on a small scale, it’s impact is relevant.

Finding a solution to the problem starts at the local level, Hangun-Balkir argues. Measures such as shutting off lights and carpooling can have an impact. “It’s very simple things, but if everybody does it and everybody’s aware of it, it’s going to build up.”

“The big push for sustainability now ends up being really important in how we move forward,” Farley said. However, he also fears structural problems in the agriculture system. “Whether our current agricultural system is sustainable…is another issue that has to be addressed.”

As of now, it does not appear so. According to Boliari, agriculture accounts for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. “I believe we have to move into that sustainable agricultural system if we want to have a better allocation of resources,” Boliari said.

No matter which facet of the challenge is tackled first, awareness and technology remain key in finding a solution.

According to Farley, New York City consumed upwards of 1.7 billion gallons of water daily in the 1960s. Today, the city consumes just 1.1 billion. Most of the declines came in periods of drought, he said.

Farley attributed the successes through these crises to “technology, and in particular people being more aware of those issues.” And if the world is to recover from this one, awareness and technology will likely be at the heart of the recovery once again.