Global Warming And The World Food Supply

The potential consequences of global warming on life as we now know it are many, but scientists studying agriculture in particular are among those expressing some of the greatest concern for what lay in store in a warming world. New research predicts that, due to rising global average temperatures, droughts and crop failures will become the standard in years to come. And the implications for the world food situation are going to be nasty.  So how long before we’re all starving to death?

According to the new research, published in Science Magazine, there’s a 90 percent chance that what are currently the highest temperatures in the tropics will be on average the lowest by the end of the Century. That projected rise in temperatures is astounding and represents the worst end of the spectrum of climate change scenarios. The reliability of the information is based on the 23 leading climate models which sourced the data. The scientists, David Battisti, climate change modeler of the University of Washington and Rosamond Naylor of Stanford University, united general climate change information with particular food security issues before issuing their depressing conclusions.

What they are saying is that in all probability we’ll all go very hungry due to a dramatic rise in temperatures by the end of the Century in the tropical regions of the world, large parts of which are traditional food growing areas. The anticipated rises in seasonal temperatures affect crop yields in ways that can be predicted rather precisely. Every degree Celsius (1.8 in Fahrenheit) rise in temperature results in 16 percent lower crop yields of wheat, corn, soy or other crops according to Naylor. The drop in harvests is projected at 20 to 40%. And that is a modest estimate because issues like (new) pests are not even taken into account.

It’s difficult to place this in a context that’s going to be precise and relevant to future scenarios. But consider these figures about the current world food situation. Worldometers reports that the number of undernourished people in the world was 890,821,131 (on 13 January, 2009 when this article was written). And at the same moment, 1,131,607,605 people in the world were overweight. The number of obese people was 337,033,775 and the people who had died of hunger on Tuesday January 13th 2009 at 8:51 am totaled 10,530. (Manic depressives beware – I am an early riser.) The figures tally roughly with recent FAO information which shows that 75 million more people slid below the hunger threshold in 2007, bringing the estimated number of hungry people worldwide to 923 million.

The (current or future) global food supply is harder to express in precise figures. That’s because there is a massive contradiction in that supply is calibrated globally while prices are affected by incidents that happen locally. This makes for disastrous situations in poor countries and inconveniences for consumers in rich countries in times of price hikes like those that happened last year. In general it’s a rule of thumb that global agriculture keeps pace with population growth through a magic formula comprised of such terms as food production, advanced seeds, fertilizer prices, water supply, and environmental technologies. In absolute terms, food security is achieved by annual cereal carry-over stocks – the grain stored in warehouses. Data going back to 1993 indicates that 19-20% of annual cereal consumption is carried over to safeguard against disastrous situations the next year.

Last year’s massive price increases on the world food market –triggered in part by a drought in Australia, various WTO decisions and new Argentinian export taxes– have led to an unacceptable increase in malnutrition in poor countries. Experts in the West are increasingly convinced that this ought to be remedied by measures that help people build a more reliable, rather than efficient, production system. A ‘maximum agricultural self-sufficiency’ solution (proferred by Bill Clinton, among others) is an alternative to simply increasing food supply by growing more through an ever more sophisticated world food market (argued by the FT’s Paul Collier). Collier is a big fan of Brazil’s large technologically sophisticated agro firms robust enough to set the tone on the world food market.

There’s an uncanny relationship between knowing that we’re headed for food scarcity situations and observing what actual precautions countries are taking to fend off the worst global climate change effects. The proposed solutions  are compelling and should be seen in light of what’s really feasible in the larger setting of the global climate and what’s really going on in various countries. Naylor warns that the risks to the agriculture sector are further exacerbated by rapid increases in population growth.

The impacts we will see on yield, combined with a growing population that depends greatly on agriculture for food and income, will demand a profound level of adaptation, which might include moving hundreds of millions of people,” Battisti said.

That’s why research by the likes of Battisti and Naylor is so important. It provides much needed guidance. Rather than focusing on the effects of incidental disasters such as droughts, the duo have calculated the overall effects of higher temperatures. Believe it or not, such calculation are to date rather unique in our world.

The research also is incrementally important in the thinking about how poor countries adapt to climate change. Drought-resistant products by companies like Syngenta, Monsanto and BASF appear enticing, especially when none of the affected countries are prepared for the scenarios described by Naylor and Battisti. Maize growers in Africa are most urgently in need of assistance because their fate affects almost half the world population, the duo says. Three billion people live in Africa and over one billion of these people are already malnourished. “Figuring out how to adapt agriculture to global warming couldn’t be more urgent”, according to Battisti and Naylor.

But modifying crops genetically is by no means uncontroversial. Not only due to potential ecological damage but also because genetic engineering companies take a level of control that would be better off in the hands of organizations that weren’t profit motivated. There’s considerable concern that profit-hungry corporations are not fighting fair battles by sponsoring researchers and getting government approval for their produce on the basis of biased research.  Jeremy Rifkin filed a groundbreaking multi-billion dollar antitrust lawsuit against the likes of Monsanto earlier this month which underscores the dangers of this.

It’s world poverty and hunger which the likes of Monsanto say they can cure. In a recent interview Syngenta’s chief executive officer Mike Mack, said his (genetic modification) company will launch drought-tolerant corn crops by 2013.

We will have corn that can be grown more reliably in areas where corn could not be grown before. What that means is that now, land that could not be used for corn due to heat and drought stress will have much higher commercial value,” he told

The food crisis is by far not over. But in years to come the proponents and opponents of genetically modified crops will likely clash stronger than ever before, precisely because the battle will be played out in the context of the adaptation to global warming.

In the process we’ll learn a thing or two about plant life. A basic – almost obscene – fact is that the higher temperatures will initially boost plant growth, due to their natural absorption of CO2. But this boost is going to be negligible compared to the loss of crop growth due to the higher temperatures (estimated at 20 to 40%).

Meanwhile Syngenta’s Mack and others are working around the clock to boost plant performance by microscopically studying issues such as water, fertilizer and pesticide usage.  It will come down to knitty-gritty details like the difference between depriving a corn plant of water in its first three weeks of life and the effects of depriving it in the last 30 days.

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