As a new mother, I’ve spent the last few weeks terrified of running out of food for my 2-month-old baby, who was born six weeks early and has struggled with breastfeeding. But the thing that scares me as much as the prospect of running out of formula is the knowledge that this shortage is a preview of what is to come if governments fail to transition off fossil fuels and limit global warming.
Most of the dialogue around climate consequences is weather-focused: extreme heat, storms, and fires. But the climate crisis is also a food and water crisis, one that has already interrupted global food systems and caused devastating famine. And it will get worse: UNICEF estimates that by 2040, one in four children globally will experience shortages of water and food.
Americans have very little understanding of where most of our food comes from. That makes it harder to connect the dots between extreme heat, drought, the “insect apocalypse,” and our food system. But without dramatic action to limit both warming and corporate power over our food supply, food shortages and famines are imminent.
To put it simply, the plants we eat—and the animals that eat plants—require water, a predictable climate, and beneficial insects, like pollinators, to grow. Climate change is ruining all that, while also creating the conditions for agricultural disaster: fires, floods, heat waves, freezes, and new diseases that could wipe out entire cultivars of staple food plants. Extreme heat and drought is already decreasing the yields of American soy, corn, and wheat crops.
The formula crisis is a climate preview in more ways than one. While the Biden administration rightly used the Defense Production Act (DPA) to get new formula on shelves, Republicans used the shortage to fearmonger about immigration, going so far as to demand that formula be taken from the babies of immigrant asylum seekers in detention. Climate-change-induced induced food and water shortages that affect hundreds of millions of people will only fuel more violent nativism and cruelty.
Another parallel: The corporate consolidation that precipitated the formula shortage is also a feature of our agricultural system—and already makes food more expensive. And with an increasingly oligarchic government, the prospect of frequent food and water shortages becomes even more dire. During the Irish potato famine, the British infamously continued exporting grain from Ireland to England while millions of Irish starved to death. When faced with food and water shortages and scant government regulation, it is likely that corporations and the ultra-rich will put their profits over working people’s survival. That Wall Street firms are buying up the world’s water supply should terrify us.
Hopefully, baby formula will be back on shelves soon. But if we want to prevent babies, children, and adults from starving to death in the years to come, we need both to end our reliance on fossil fuels and to limit the power of corporations in our democracy, before it’s too late.
To start, President Biden must treat the climate crisis with the urgency that a cataclysmic crop-destroying, famine-inducing phenomenon deserves: He should immediately declare a climate emergency and use his executive authority—including the DPA—to curb emissions, ramp up renewables, and protect the food and water our babies need to thrive.