The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture

The Lempert Report
March 02, 2017

A panel of experts discussed the global food supply system and the impact on Africa and the US.

Some may not believe in climate change, but the effect on growing our foods is without doubt according to four experts who gathered at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for a panel concerning the impact of climate change on agriculture and the global food supply system, with an emphasis on the United States and Africa. 

This panel was moderated by Peter Thomson, environment editor at Public Radio International’s “The World,” and consisted of Gary Adamkiewicz, assistant professor of environmental health and exposure disparities at the Harvard Chan School; Margaret Walsh, senior ecologist at the Climate Change Program Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School; and Caleb Harper, principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. 

Adamkiewicz noted that an estimated 800 million to 900 million people worldwide are undernourished. “This idea of feeding the world is really a 20th-century idea,” Juma said, noting that the tendency historically has been to select for high yields of certain crops, rather than for high nutritional content. “It seems to me today that the focus is on nourishing the world.” 

Juma, who heads a project called Agriculture Innovation in Africa, said that in developing countries the impact of climate change on agriculture “is actually understated.” He noted that studies are mainly focused on yields, rarely including decisions made by farmers confronting climate change, who may reduce their crops in arid areas or even abandon agriculture altogether. “The challenges are much more serious than we think,” he said. 

Referring to the work of the MIT Open Agriculture Initiative, Harper described personal food computers, boxes that create a climate inside. He described a future of meat cultivation, grown through cell cultures rather than by raising animals, and predicted a return to ancient techniques such as fermenting and brewing.

For more on cellular agriculture, be sure to watch our own 2017 Food Trends Report at the link provided.