With the gluttonous feast that is Thanksgiving now behind us, many have turned their thoughts to the December holidays. Few have considered next year’s Thanksgiving or the ones after that. The holiday could ultimately be stripped of its traditional bounty, however, if water scarcity and climate change continue unchecked.
Dwindling water supplies and ongoing climate shifts could bring about worldwide food shortages or dramatic increases in food prices. The latter is far more likely, but the result could be the same: An end to cheap, readily available food at a time of explosive growth in the world’s population.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has found that one third of the continental U.S. is suffering from abnormally dry, or drought conditions. Drought conditions are the most acute in the Western U.S., according to the report, produced jointly by the federal Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The nation’s groundwater, which provides 50 percent of the water used for drinking, irrigation of crops, and industry, is diminishing .
“Basically the groundwater is being depleted of its resource,” said Kevin Dennehy, project coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey’s groundwater program. “It’s been happening for quite some time and it’s going to continue to happen. The removal of water from the aquifer is at a greater rate than water is being re-charged in the aquifer naturally,” Dennehy said in a story published by CircleOfBlue.org.
Scientists and resource specialists have warned that freshwater scarcity is hurting farm productivity. Farmers may see their crop yields decrease because there is not enough water, or because conditions limit the amount of water a farmer is allowed to use.
Even amid diminishing water resources, paradoxically, flooding is on the rise.
“We know that that’s already a problem,” Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Circleofblue.org, “Spring flooding is a problem in agriculture in terms of farmers getting into their fields to sow their crops, and we’ve seen some really significant flooding.”
Climate change, food production, and water scarcity are inextricably linked. At the United Nations’ World Summit on Food Security, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared, “There can be no food security without climate security.”
Even as climate change and water scarcity are making it difficult for farmers to increase yields, the world’s population is set to explode. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, the world population will reach over nine billion. Representatives of nations participating in the World Summit on Food Security have agreed that agricultural output must increase 70 percent by 2050. Yet, threats remain.
The U.N. Secretary-General told the summit gathering:
Weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. In many parts of the world, water supplies are declining, agricultural land is drying out. Food security and climate change are deeply interconnected. If the glaciers of the Himalaya melt, it would affect the livelihood and survival of 300 million people in India and China and up to one billion people throughout Asia. Africa’s small farmers, who depend primarily on rain to produce most of the continent’s food, could see harvests drop by 50 percent by 2020.
Now let’s get back to Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday, and I am not prepared to have my future Thanksgivings jeopardized by solvable problems. If we’re not going to solve the water and climate problems because it is the right thing to do, we might as well consider solving them for reasons we care about – the turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberries, yams, potatoes, gravy, and various pies.
So don’t forget about the Thanksgivings of the future. One day, the thing we are most thankful for on Thanksgiving may be the food itself.
Photo credit: donkey in the drought stricken maize field by Ray Weil.