The vulnerability of the US food system to climate change

Abstract

The climate change vulnerability of a food system is a function of the exposure of the system to specific climate effects, the sensitivity of the system to those effects, and the capacity of the system adapt to those effects in order to maintain system integrity. A synthesis of recent literature conducted to explore the vulnerability of the US food system to climate change suggests that the interaction between regional climate change effects and the geographic specialization and concentration of agricultural production in the USA increases the vulnerability of the US food system to climate change. Vegetable and fruit production in the Pacific states are particularly sensitive to reduced water supplies, warmer winters, and more variable spring weather. Grain production in the Great Plains and the Midwest is sensitive to more variable weather, warmer winters, heat wave, and hot summer nights and flooding caused by more frequent heavy rains. The concentration of beef, pork, and poultry production in confined animal feeding operations located in the southern Great Plains and the Southeast is particularly sensitive to increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather and interruptions in feed, water, and power supplies associated with interactions between land, water, and energy use that amplify climate change effects. There is evidence that climate change is already causing disruptions throughout the US food system. Farmers and ranchers in the US report that increased weather variability and more frequent and intense weather extremes have increased the costs and complexity of food production. Businesses operating in the US agricultural supply, processing, distribution, and retailing sectors are actively managing supply networks to reduce disruptions associated with climate change effects. Food systems that rely on external or distant resources and specialized production, supply, and marketing chains appear to be particularly vulnerable to global environmental change. These characteristics, widely recognized as critical challenges to the sustainability of the US food system, take on new importance as barriers to climate resilience.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    All information on specific crops and livestock production reported in this section were obtained from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at agmrc.org unless otherwise noted. Production statistics included in this section were calculated using data from US Department of Agriculture Annual Production Summaries for 2012 unless otherwise noted.

  2. 2.

    All of the observed and projected weather data discussed in this section is from Our Changing Climate (Walsh et al. 2014), unless otherwise noted.

  3. 3.

    The term sustainable agriculture was defined by the US Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance the environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” This definition explicitly acknowledges the multiple dimensions of sustainability—ecological, social, and economic—and provides specific design criteria for sustainable agriculture systems.

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Correspondence to Laura Lengnick.

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Lengnick, L. The vulnerability of the US food system to climate change. J Environ Stud Sci 5, 348–361 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0290-4

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Vulnerability
  • Agricultural production
  • Food systems
  • Adaptive capacity
  • Resilience