Food Distribution

Food distribution systems at the local, national, and international scales are vulnerable to impacts of climate variability and change. Such impacts can affect transit time, delivery reliability, and efficiency, all of which impact food costs.
Copley Square Farmers Market

The farmers market in Boston's Copley Square.

Projected rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, and increases in the frequency of extreme events may affect the food distribution system at the local, national, and global scales.

Land, water, and air transportation are all vulnerable to climate change. Adverse climate events impact transit time, delivery reliability, and efficiency, which affect the cost of all goods moving through the transportation system1—including food. High temperatures, extreme precipitation, and storm surges can damage roadways, runways, and railways.1,2,3 Sea level rise will make ports and harbors more vulnerable to flooding and storm surges, and may necessitate reconfiguration of ports, harbors, and bridges to accommodate higher seas.3 Floods and droughts will affect shipping channels and the navigability of inland waterways.3,4 Drought also increases wildfire probability, which can affect visibility and thus require road and airport closures.3 See Transportation for a more detailed discussion.

Climate variability and change will also affect food distribution systems indirectly, such as through changes in agricultural trade flows. For example, if corn production shifts northward in response to increasing temperatures, different transportation routes and modalities may be required to transport the corn to market from new origins.3 The cost of agricultural product transportation will also likely rise if policy measures and technological changes reduce greenhouse gas emissions by affecting fuel types.3

The impact of weather on transportation has been very visible recently in barge transport, which is a major conduit for grain export in the United States. For example, in 2012 a severe drought brought water levels in the Mississippi River to near-record lows. To avoid stranding, the Coast Guard restricted the draft of barges to nine feet, down from 12–14 feet, forcing them to carry lighter loads and increasing shipping costs.5

Mississippi River Barge

A barge on the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri.

Proper food storage during processing, packaging, and transport is important for delivering safe, quality food. A rise in global temperatures and shifts in humidity associated with climate change could increase the risk of food poisoning and food spoilage. Innovations in storage and transport methods and technology, and improvement and extension of refrigeration throughout the supply chain, will be necessary to keep food safe.2

Banner Image Credit
Farmers Market in Lansing, Michigan. By Pattymooney, CC BY-SA 3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons
Last modified
22 July 2016 - 2:47pm