No milk in the dairy case? Climate change is to blame.

If you think the effects of climate change on our food supply are something only our children or grandchildren will have to deal with, think again. Sometimes all it takes is a trip to the local supermarket to get a snapshot of what more serious food disruptions may look like in the future.

Recently, while following my usual supermarket routine, I stopped at the dairy section to make my weekly purchase of a half-gallon of organic milk. Where I expected to find rows of my favorite brand, I instead found three empty shelves.  I thought little of the shortage, except to imagine that the supermarket must have had a rush on Stonyfield organic milk that week. (Perhaps a tour bus with California plates had passed through, loaded up with organic foodies who came to the Hudson Valley to spend a few bracing nights in a local campground?) I shrugged off the inconvenience, bought a different brand, and went home without giving it another thought.

The next week I went back to the supermarket, expecting to find my usual brand back in stock.  Instead, I was greeted by a sign reading, “Due to drought, Stonyfield and Organic Valley milk are not available.”

Just a little background here:  Stonyfield’s milk is supplied by Organic Valley dairy farms.  Organic Valley pursues a regional, cooperative sourcing model, supplying  milk, as much as possible, “close to home.” Here in the Northeast where I live, the supply of organic milk comes primarily from Vermont, Maine, and New York but also from the Midwest, including Iowa.

When I called Organic Valley customer service to find out what was going on, I was informed that the two-week-long disruption of milk supply at my local supermarket was “due to drought in the Midwest and the Northeast.” That information turned out to be consistent with data published by the Climate Data Center of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which shows that some pockets in Organic Valley’s primary supply regions experienced moderate to severe drought during the 2013 growing season.

As it turns out, 2012 was also a bad year for some dairy farmers, like those in Iowa who supply milk to Organic Valley. Expressing the depth of their concern following the 2012 drought, 138 researchers and scientists from 27 universities and colleges across Iowa signed the Iowa Climate Statement 2012. The document reiterated that the state’s 2012 drought was “consistent with a warmer climate predicated as part of global climate change.” The statement concluded that “warming will continue as global emissions increase and greenhouse gases accumulate.” The scientists ended their statement with a prediction of increased incidence and severity of droughts as early as the 2020s.

This year, concerned Iowans continued to sound the alarm with this sobering opening paragraph of their Iowa Climate Statement 2013:

Our state has long held a proud tradition of helping to “feed the world.”  Our ability to do so is now increasingly threatened by rising greenhouse gas  emissions and resulting climate change.  Our climate has disrupted  agricultural production profoundly during the past two years and is  projected to become even more harmful in coming decades as our climate continues to warm and change.

Are we doing all we can to prevent climate change and disruptions to the food supply?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question falls somewhere between bad and worse. We’re just not rising to the challenge. Just last week Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch released their annual Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI).  The report examines actions taken by those countries responsible for over ninety percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions.  The report’s conclusions are not encouraging.  Although the United States has reduced emissions by eight percent over the past five years, we’re still ranked forty-eighth in the list of fifty-eight super-polluters.

(On the bright side, that puts us ten spots above neighboring Canada, ranked at the bottom of the barrel as an outlier that, according to the report, “shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer of all industrialized countries.” Denmark, on the other hand, ranked highest, although the report leaves open the number 1, 2, and 3 spots in recognition that “no single country is on track to prevent dangerous climate change.”)

Let me be clear here and finish with this disclaimer. It would be ludicrous to claim that a minor two-week interruption of milk supply holds any equivalency whatsoever to the more serious climate-change related incidents occurring across the globe, particularly the sickening devastation that typhoon Haiyan visited on more than 9.8 million people in the Eastern Philippines.

However, the minor inconvenience of a disrupted milk supply or any other foodstuffs on our grocery shelves is a red flag that should say to those of us who acknowledge the coming danger that we should sit up and take notice.  The days of the reliable food supply that we have so blithely taken for granted may be coming to an end.