Food Security Background Briefer: Our Food and Farms are at Risk from Climate Change

New Reports Spotlight Growing "Food Security" Worries for America

Food Security Background Briefer


New Reports Spotlight Growing “Food Security” Worries for America


Prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council
May 2014


Matt Russell is a fifth generation Iowa farmer. All of his life he’s watched the weather and worked the land.


Lately, he’s seen ominous changes in the climate: A multi-year drought. Five hundred year floods. Snow in May. Enormous rains followed by months of nothing but dry, blue skies. Summer temperatures falling to the 30s. Then, days and days soaring into the 100s.


He and fellow Iowan Arlyn Schipper, whose large corn and soybean farming operation also being affected by more extreme weather, tell their stories in two new powerful videos (*also see note below) here:


These Iowa farmers are a key part of an emerging major national story—America’s food security and our agricultural production system are under threat from climate change.


Two definitive reports, representing the work of hundreds of scientists, show the risks that climate change poses to our food system. A recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, including a chapter on food and agriculture is available here. The upcoming National Climate Assessment report is scheduled for release on May 6 – Draft report findings are here.


They make it clear that climate change, including extreme weather and rising temperatures, will affect every part of our food system, including crop yields, prices, storage, processing, distribution and even food quality.


And yet, major U.S. agriculture organizations have been slow to acknowledge the warning signs and the need for action. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, takes the position that extreme weather is increasing, but may be just a natural global cycle. The Farm Bureau opposes leadership action by the United States to control the carbon pollution that scientists say is causing changes in the climate. More here:


Even so, farmers around the country are feeling the changes. The last several years exemplify the types of struggles that farmers are expected to face in the future due to climate change. It’s notable that the Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) paid out a record-breaking $10.8 billion in crop insurance claims to farmers in 2011, many of whom suffered during the historic Mississippi River basin floods. Then, FCIP broke that record in 2012, when indemnities topped an all-time high of $17.4 billion, mostly due to severe drought. More here:


After too little water, there was too much. In 2013, drenching rains delayed or prevented farmers from planting their crops in many regions and drowned newly planted seeds in others, and a May snowstorm shocked farmers in the Corn Belt.  This year, cold wet weather is again slowing planting across the Midwest. More here:




Climate change will alter the stability of food supplies and create new food security challenges for the U.S. and other countries. Since global agricultural markets are linked, climate events abroad may affect food security in the U.S., and vice versa. In the U.S., agricultural exports outpace imports, although the import share has increased over the last two decades. More here and here:


The U.S. now imports 13% of grains, 20% of vegetables (much higher in winter months), almost 40% of fruit, 85% of fish and shellfish, and almost all tropical products such as coffee, tea, and bananas. Climate extremes in regions that supply these products to the U.S. can cause sharp reductions in production and increases in prices. Because about one fifth of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported, our food supply and security can be significantly affected by climate variations and changes in other parts of the world, the NCA draft report shows. More here.


Climate impacts will affect the quantity and prices of produce available for export as well. As the world seeks to feed nine billion people by 2050, and because U.S. agriculture is integrated into the global economy, the impacts of climate change on crop yields, food prices, processing, storage, transportation, and retailing has very negative implications for the food system that Americans and the world depend upon, the draft NCA report warns.


As carbon pollution increases, food quality may also decline. For example, rising carbon dioxide levels are associated with changes in staple crops like rice and wheat, such as reductions in protein content. These types of effects may have negative implications for nutrition in the future. Because increasing carbon pollution leads to rising average temperatures that affect rates of food spoilage, long-term storage for our food supply may also be affected by climate change. More here.




Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past few decades and are projected to increase over the next 25 years. The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded. 


The trend toward more dry days and higher temperatures will add stress to limited water resources, and will negatively affect crop and animal production. Hot nights will increase, which can reduce grain yields and increase stress on livestock reducing rates of meat, milk, and egg production. Increasing rainfall extremes will exacerbate the current loss and degradation of critical agricultural soil and water assets, and will continue to challenge both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, according to the NCA draft report. More here.




Many agricultural regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests, and other climate change- induced stresses, the NCA draft report shows.


Climate change will likely increase pest populations, which in turn may lead to an overall increase in pesticide use. In addition, warmer and wetter conditions from climate change may drive increases in pesticide concentrations in ground and surface water.


The recent IPCC report acknowledges that increasing carbon dioxide will increase the growth rates of some food crops, but limited availability of nutrients and water could prevent some crops from making full use of the benefits of additional carbon. Because the plant growth stimulation effect has a disproportionately positive impact on several weed species, increasing carbon dioxide will contribute to increased risk of crop loss due to weed pressure, which will offset the CO2 benefits to crops, the IPCC report suggests. More here.




Agriculture has been able to adapt to recent changes in climate, rebounding from historic levels of crop loss; however, increased innovation and a commitment to building resilient farms will be needed to ensure the rate of adaptation of agriculture and the associated socioeconomic system can keep pace with climate change over the next few decades. The magnitude of climate change projected for this century, particularly under higher emissions scenarios, will challenge the ability of the U.S. agriculture sector to thrive in a new reality of frequent extreme weather.




Scientists agree that the increasing concentration of carbon pollution in our atmosphere is the key reason the climate is changing. This heat-trapping pollution is throwing the weather out of whack. We know what the problem is and we also know what’s creating it. About 1,000 electric power plants in the U.S. kick out 40 percent of the nation’s carbon pollution. Today we limit the arsenic, mercury and soot these plants emit, but not carbon pollution. That needs to change.


Using authority under the 40-year-old Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first carbon pollution limits for future power plants and is on schedule, by early June, to propose limits on existing power plants.


This is a big step we can take, along with driving more clean energy and efficiency and curbing other sources of greenhouse gases such as from vehicles, to reduce the carbon pollution threatening American agriculture and our food security. It’s time to act.


A livestream audio recording for NRDC’s telephone press conference on this issue is here:


***Downloadable Vimeo and broadcast quality video of Iowa farmers and B-roll here***

 Password: Iowa


FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:  Jake Thompson, NRDC 202-289-2387,; or Patrick Mitchell,, 703-276-3266, or Elizabeth Heyd, NRDC 202-289-2424;




Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), AR5 WGII, Chapter 7 “Food Security and Food Production Systems,”


Lake IR, Hooper L, Abdelhamid A, Bentham G, Boxall AB, Draper A, Fairweather-Tait S, Hulme M, Hunter PR, Nichols G, Waldron KW. 2012. Climate Change and Food Security: Health Impacts in Developed Countries. Environ Health Perspect 120:1520–1526;


National Climate Assessment, 2013 draft chapter 6, “Agriculture,”


O’Connor, C. “Soil matters: How the Federal Crop Insurance Program should be reformed to encourage low-risk farming methods with high-reward environmental outcomes.”  Natural Resources Defense Council,



The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. Visit NRDC at





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