09/23/2013 05:10 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST

What We've Done to the Environment Is Haunting Us Now

As people in Colorado are reeling from the aftermath of what some call the "1,000-Year Flood," it may be timely to take a closer look at the ramifications of global warming on food security. The unprecedented downpour, 21 inches in one week -- twice the annual rainfall, that left eight people dead, thousands of homes destroyed, their farmlands submerged and cattle stranded has left many people wondering if global warming worsened the torrential rains and floods.

Although much has been lost between the translation of climate science language which reveals no direct links, few would deny that extreme weather patterns are becoming more frequent and intense with devastating consequences on human civilization. Most climate scientists (97 per cent) also agree that greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted from human activities is exacerbating climate change.

One of the biggest sources is the livestock sector, which is responsible for 18 per cent of the total anthropogenic GHG emissions (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide), fuelled by global demand for meat and dairy products, according to a published report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes."

Factoring in emissions from land use and related changes, the livestock sector generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, mostly from manure, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. And it accounts for 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of the cattle, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

This is of particular significance for states like Colorado where agriculture pumps $41 billion a year into the economy, with cash from Colorado farm receipts alone totalling to $7.1 billion annually, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Nationally, the United States Department of Agriculture is projecting $139.5-billion in exports in 2013, and the 2012 net cash income for Canada is expected to remain at a near record of $12.9 billion this year, according to Government of Canada.

Amazingly, neither America nor Canada seems to be equipped to handle weather related losses, as farmers and ranchers are bracing for widespread damage to the Colorado's multibillion agriculture industry. Property losses alone in that state are estimated at nearly $2 billion, as many dread the prospect of losing their cornfields if floods in the low-lying prairie near the South Platte River do not recede before the October harvest. Here in Canada, the agricultural losses resulting from the floods this summer in Alberta are estimated by BMO Capital Markets to reach $3.75 billion as the province of Saskatchewan was coping with record breaking floods.

But that's not all. When we factor in the cascading effects of food security, the outlook for the agriculture sector in developed nations looks pretty bleak as projected in a 2012 report by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. "Climate change will have impacts on nutrition and food safety in developed countries."

Essentially coping with climate change would require a dramatic shift in farming practices and infrastructure, which will cost more money and most of it recovered by increasing food prices. This in turn will have negative effects on food choices, as people will shift to cheaper brands and eat processed food high in fat and sugar, thereby increasing the risk of life threatening illnesses such as diabetes and heart problems. According to the Royal Society,

"Increasing food prices may lower the nutritional quality of dietary intakes, exacerbate obesity, and amplify health inequalities. Altered conditions for food production may result in emerging pathogens, new crop and livestock species, and altered use of pesticides and veterinary medicines, and affect the main transfer mechanisms through which contaminants move from the environment into food. All these have implications for food safety and the nutritional content of food."

Another report entitled "Potential causes and health effects of rising global food prices" suggests, "Between January 2006 and July 2008, global food prices rose by an average of 75 per cent, causing an estimated 75-million additional people to become undernourished worldwide."

Overall, it's becoming clearer that what we are putting into the environment is returning to haunt us, resulting in unnecessary loss of lives, malnourishment, disease and starvation. Another key lesson is, the developed nations are not shielded from climate change, nor do they have the capacity to deal with a devastation of such cataclysmic proportion as the recent severe weather event in Colorado.

However, amid all the doom and gloom there is light at the end of the tunnel, as plenty of research and solutions are available. FAO points to one multi-stakeholder report Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative which proposes "explicitly to consider environmental costs and suggests number of ways of remedying the situation" among other things,

"controlled livestock exclusion from sensitive areas; payment schemes for environmental services in livestock-based land use to help reduce and reverse land degradation; increasing the efficiency of livestock production and feed crop agriculture, improving animals' diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, and setting up biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure."

So as global livestock sector continues to grow faster than any other agricultural sub-sector and provide livelihoods to about 1.3-billion people, it's time the world leaders moved swiftly towards bold actions in mandating farming practices that could help mitigate climate change, rather than succumb to bureaucratic policies and selfish lobby groups.

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