Climate change: impact on the food we eat

Texas cattle going northWhile climate change is predicted to occur over time in this century and beyond, we are already seeing impacts on our food supply. Most of the impacts raise the signal that we need to change how we eat and how much we eat of a certain food group, not only to trim our waistlines but to also trim our carbon footprint.

Currently, in Texas the worst drought in many years has killed the forage for the Texas cattle. Managers at Swenson and the state's other large ranches have been scrambling to ship cattle to verdant northern land they have leased in an effort to save their trademark brands and to continue taking advantage of the worldwide demand for beef.

The number of breeding cows shipped out of state increased 140% in September compared withTexas cattle exports the same month last year, with 145,000 cattle exported, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission.

By January, about 12% of Texas' roughly 5 million head of cattle will have disappeared since last year — shipped, slaughtered or sold, according to David Anderson, an economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, an agriculture education agency based at Texas A&M University.

Swenson has paid about $70,000 to ship 1,200 head — two-thirds of the herd — to Tryon, Neb., and Lusk, Wyo. They are all cows, the precious breeding stock they have cultivated since Swedish immigrants staked out the territory in the 1860s.

Swenson's double-deck trucks will trace some of the same routes followed by the 19th century Goodnight Loving Cattle Trailcattle drives up the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving trails. Such massive drives would no longer be possible on hoof, the prairies long ago fenced in.

Swenson has sold 1,000 head of cattle this year and is struggling to maintain the remaining 500 cows, 100 bulls, and 1,300 calves.

Texas has suffered more than $5.2 billion in agricultural losses this year from the dry spell, including in the cattle industry. No relief is in sight and the state climatologist says this could be the start of a 10-year drought, part of changing weather patterns worldwide.

A few months ago, managers of Swenson and the larger spreads called a crisis meeting at Tongue River Ranch, about 95 miles north of here. They agreed to send Braden and the manager of the Four Sixes Ranch to scout northern pastures that had received above-average rainfall, and ended up leasing land in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

Many say they plan to return at least some cows once Texas greens, but admit it could be years before the cows come home.

Peanuts Suffer Too

Costco Peanut Butter displaysAnother hot, dry summer has devastated this year's peanut crop, sending prices for the legume skyrocketing and forcing peanut-butter brands including J.M. Smucker Co.'s Jif, Unilever NV's Skippy and ConAgra Foods Inc.'s Peter Pan into startling price increases.

Wholesale prices for big-selling Jif are going up 30% starting in November, while Peter Pan will raise prices as much as 24% in a couple weeks. Unilever wouldn't comment on its pricing plans, but a spokesman for Wegmans Food Markets, the closely held supermarket chain in the Northeast U.S., said wholesale prices for all brands it carries, including Skippy, are 30% to 35% higher than a year ago.

Kraft Foods Inc., which launched Planters peanut butter in June, is raising prices 40% on Oct. 31, a spokeswoman said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the current spot price for a ton of unprocessed Runner peanuts, commonly used in peanut butter, at about $1,150 a ton, which is up from about peanut butter$450 a year ago. A pound of shelled peanuts, meanwhile, would fetch $1.20 currently, one broker said, up from 52 cents a year ago.

The tight peanut supply means peanut-butter costs will eventually make their way to consumers, who are facing higher prices on just about everything they buy in the supermarkets. While prices for food consumed at home are broadly up 6% versus a year ago, the increase in peanut butter should be immediately noticeable and take a bite out of disposable income

peanut harvestingAs with any crop, the challenges facing peanut farmers begin and end with the weather. In Georgia, the leading U.S. peanut producing state, the planting season was the driest in memory for John Harrell, a sixth-generation peanut farmer in Whigham, Ga. Peanuts, typically planted between mid-April and the beginning of June, had to wait until several weeks after that for any rains, he said.

"I don't remember a year that you didn't catch a shower or had so little moisture in the ground to get the seed up," said Mr. Harrell, age 56. "It was dry about as deep as you can dig down."

Compounding the problems was that some farmers devoted more of their fields to crops like cotton, which was fetching a high price. The USDA Agriculture estimates a
17% drop in the peanut crop this year, to 3.46 billion pounds.

Of added concern is the quality of the crop. Scorching heat, especially in Texas, singed many peanut plants as they developed, leaving more peanuts destined to be processed into oil, rather than the edible-quality that's shelled and turned into peanut butter. Only 38% of the U.S. peanut crop was rated good or excellent last month, down from about 60% a year ago.

Peanut Butter makers face crunch

Lamb, Beef, and Cheese Top the Charts on Climate Change Impact

While the climate is directly impacting our supply of certain crops and food, our eating habits in turn impact the climate. The meat you eat can harm your health, and also the planet. It’s well known that devouring too many cheeseburgers is a health risk, and that cattle grazing consumes vast tracts of land and soils rivers.

Lamb fares no better. Lamb causes more greenhouse gas emissions than a steak. And a slice of cheese pizza isn’t much better, as far as its climate-change impact. A
4-ounce serving of cheese leads to more global warming-causing emissions than a similar-sized hunk of pork, salmon, turkey or chicken.

Those are some of the surprising findings in the Environmental Working Group’s new report, the Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health. The Washington D.C.-based research group says it’s the first study to fully track the “cradle-to-grave” greenhouse gas emissions associated with meats and other high-protein foods. Relying on numbers crunched by a Washington County consultant,
CleanMetrics Corp. of Bethany, the Meat Eaters Guide tracks the impact of food every step of the way, from the fields and barns to the trash cans and landfills.

Nobody expects Americans will drastically change their diets overnight and ignore other factors such as personal taste, nutrition, health and cost. “But if you want to go after greenhouse gases, you’ve got to attack food,” says Peter Spendelow, president of Northwest VEG, a Portland-based group promoting vegetarian and vegan eating. The solution is simple, he states, eat more plants and less animal products.

Environmental Working Group advises people to switch their diets in bite-sized steps, such as joining the Meatless Monday movement and going vegetarian one day a week. Americans already eat nearly 60 percent more meat than their counterparts in Europe eat.

The easiest change is switching to smaller portions of meat and buying only what you eat, says Kari Hamerschlag, an Environmental Working Group senior analyst and lead author of the Meat Eaters Guide.

Lamb, beef and cheese score the highest because of sheep and cattle digestive systems. Like other ruminants, which include goats and elk, they soften food in their first stomach, regurgitate the “cud” and then chew it further. They wind up belching large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

“There’s nothing we can do about that; that’s the way that God made them,” says Harriet Beck. She and her husband raise sheep at Beck’s Farms, four miles west of Carver, near the Clackamas River.

A 4-ounce serving of lamb generates about 45 percent more emissions than 4 ounces of beef – a typical hamburger patty – largely because a sheep produces less edible meat relative to its weight.
However, the Meat Eaters Guide notes, only 1 percent of the meat consumed in the United States is lamb, so it’s a minor factor in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Cattle, however, are in a league of their own. Livestock account for 18 percent of the earth’s greenhouse gas emissions, says Spendelow, citing a United Nations report.

Though they’re a smaller share of the emissions in the U.S., their environmental impact is “staggering,” Hamerschlag says.

Feeding cows requires significant amounts of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water and land. The Meat
Eaters Guide, citing EPA data, says cattle feeding operations have degraded 34,000 miles of American rivers and 216,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. Nitrogen fertilizer that’s used to grow cattle feed generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

Cheese also came out third-highest when the Environmental Working Group analyzed the data based on the amount of protein consumed, Hamerschlag says.

Ultimately, though, changing our diets will only go so far to avoid dramatic dislocations from global warming. If every American became a vegetarian, it would reduce our nation’s carbon emissions by 4.5 percent, the equivalent of taking 46 million cars off the road, the Environmental Working Group calculates.

Changing our use of fossil fuels is far more crucial, Hamerschlag says. “If we really want to bring down the emissions significantly, we need to convince our elected officials to move forward with comprehensive climate and energy policy.”

To read the full Meat Eaters report click here.

Climate Change Could Shrink Chocolate Production

Scientists say climate change will eventually claim many victims -– including, according to a new report, chocolate.

As temperatures increase and weather trends change, the main growing regions for cocoa could shrink drastically, according to new research from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Ghana and the Ivory Coast –- which produce more than half of the global cocoa supply –- could take a major hit by 2050.

Currently, the optimal locations to grow the crop are about 330 feet to 820 feet above sea level, with temperatures of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit to 77 degrees. That range will soar to 1,500 feet to 1,640 feet in four decades to compensate for hotter weather.

Cocoa production, which reached about $9 billion from 2008 to 2009 and accounts for 7.5% of the Ivory Coast’s gross domestic product and 3.4% of Ghana’s, could be in for a heavy slide.

Peter Gleick, a MacArthur fellow and chief executive of the Pacific Institute, bemoaned the potential decline of the sweet treat last week in an open letter to climate change skeptics in Forbes.

Many farmers will need to find alternative crops such as cashews and cotton. But researchers pointed out that as temperatures phase out some fields, others could become prime growing spots.

“Climate change brings not only bad news but also a lot of potential opportunities,” according to the report. “The winners will be those who are prepared for change and know how to adapt.”

Los Angeles Times,"Texas driving its cattle north amid drought", by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, accessed October 13, 2011
Wall Street Journal Online, "Peanut-Butter Makers Face Crunch", by Paul Ziobro, accessed October 13, 2011
Market Watch, "Peanut-Butter Makers Face Crunch", video of Paul Ziobro on Market Watch, accessed October 13, 2011
Portland Tribune, "Lamb, beef, cheese top the charts for climate-change impact", by Steve Law, accessed October 13, 2011
Los Angeles Times, "Climate change could shrink chocolate production: report", by Tiffany Hsu, accessed October 13, 2011


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