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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Justin Gillis, NYT: A Jolt to Complacency on Food Supply

Josh Haner/The New York Times
Trials of drought-resistant durum wheat varieties at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement in Mexico.
by Justin Gillis, The New York Times, November 11, 2013
For a look at what climate change could do to the world’s food supply, consider what the weather did to the American Corn Belt last year.
Related Series

Temperature Rising

Articles in this series focus on the central arguments in the climate debate and examine the evidence for global warming and its consequences.


Josh Haner/The New York Times
A farmer growing durum wheat in Sonora, Mexico, uses river water for irrigation amid fears of declining rainfall from climate change.
At the beginning of 2012, the Agriculture Department projected the largest corn crop in the country’s history. But then a savage heat wave and drought struck over the summer. Plants withered, prices spiked, and the final harvest came in 27% below the forecast.
The situation bore a striking resemblance to what happened in Europe in 2003, after a heat wave cut agricultural production for some crops by as much as 30% and sent prices soaring.
Several researchers concluded that the European heat wave was made more likely by human-caused climate change; scientists are still arguing over the 2012 heat blast in the United States. Whatever their origin, heat waves like these give us a taste of what could be in store in a future with global warming.
Among those who are getting nervous are the people who spend their lives thinking about where our food will come from.
“The negative impacts of global climate change on agriculture are only expected to get worse,” said a reportearlier this year from researchers at the London School of Economics and a Washington think tank, theInformation Technology and & Innovation Foundation. The report cited a need for “more resilient crops and agricultural production systems than we currently possess in today’s world.”
This may be the greatest single fear about global warming: that climate change could so destabilize the world’s food system as to lead to rising hunger or even mass starvation. Two weeks ago, a leaked draft of a report by the United Nations climate committee, known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggested that the group’s concerns have grown, and that the report, scheduled for release in March in Yokohama, Japan, is likely to contain a sharp warning about risks to the food supply.
The tone is strikingly different from that of a report from the same group in 2007, which discussed some risks, but saw global warming as likely to benefit agriculture in many important growing regions.
In the years since, new scientific research has checked those assumptions.
For one, a group of young scientists has pioneered more sophisticated ways of analyzing the relationship between agriculture and climate. People like David Lobell at Stanford and Wolfram Schlenker at Columbia have used elaborate statistical techniques to get a detailed picture of what heat does to crop yields. Their work suggests that rising heat stress in some major growing areas is already putting a drag on production, and raises the possibility of much more serious effects as global warming continues.
Scientists had long hoped that the effect of heat and water stress on crops might be offset by the very thing driving global warming: the sharp increase of carbon dioxide in the air. The gas is the main food supply for plants, and a large body of evidence suggested that the ongoing rise could boost crop yields.
But a lot of that evidence came from tests in artificial environments like greenhouses. Younger scientists, who insisted on testing crops in open-air conditions more closely resembling the real world, found that the bump in yield, while certainly real, was not as high as expected. And it may not be high enough to offset other stresses from global warming.
None of this work can be called definitive — experts say we need more studies, in more types of crops, under a wider variety of growing conditions. Because the body of science is so incomplete, our forecasts of future food supply are primitive, and that means the Yokohama report will certainly not be the last word.
The scientists writing the intergovernmental panel’s report appear to have taken the recent science seriously. The draft suggests they intend to serve notice on world leaders that the risks could be substantial.
Those political leaders have tended to take the security of the food supply for granted, until a crisis hits.
The biggest food scare of this young century occurred in 2007 and 2008. Several years of lagging agricultural production, caused in part by weather extremes, collided with rising demand. Prices for major grains more than doubled, entire countries slammed the door on food exports, panic buying ensued in many markets, and food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.
Rich countries tripped over one another to help poor countries and their small farmers, pledging $22 billion. But a recent report by the Group of 8 industrialized nations found that only 74 percent of the money has been disbursed, and some aid groups say the food supply is once again falling on the world’s priority list.
The good news is that agriculture has a tremendous capacity to adapt to new conditions, including a warming climate. Crops can be planted earlier, and new varieties that are more resistant to climate stress can be developed.
But experts say the research needed to make all this happen is getting short shrift.
“Our past successes in agriculture have lulled many of those in decision-making positions into a false sense of security,” said L. Val Giddings, a fellow with the Washington think tank and a co-author of its report. “It’s been so long since any of them were actually hungry.”
CLIMATE UPDATE In its report in September on the physical science of climate change, the intergovernmental panel had embraced the idea of a global carbon budget, limiting emissions to no more than a trillion tons of carbon — a limit that will be approached within a few decades. On Monday, the panel issued several corrections to its calculations, as it often does with reports undergoing final review.
The most important change is that human emissions of carbon from 1870 to 2011 are now calculated at about 515 billion tons, instead of 531 billion tons. The new figure does not alter the panel’s argument that more than half the carbon budget has already been exhausted, but it does create slightly more room for future emissions.

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