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Climate panel issues grim predictions for food’s future in a warming world

REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Ask yourself: Of all the human endeavors essential to our survival on this warming planet, which is more critical to get right than food production?

As I looked over coverage of Monday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, its findings about probable impacts on food and food security seemed especially compelling, for at least three reasons:

  • The predictions of serious problems in world food production seemed more detailed and more confident than those of the IPCC’s 2007 report, and considerably more dire.
  • The supposedly offsetting advantages of climate change — better growing seasons in some places, more carbon dioxide everywhere — seemed to have shrunk in significance among the panel’s conservative, consensus conclusions.
  • As policy conversations necessarily shift toward adaptation strategies — given our global unwillingness to invest sufficiently in prevention — the vulnerability of agricultural sectors seems a primary concern, at least to me.

Ask yourself: Of all the human endeavors essential to our survival on this warming planet, which is more critical to get right than food production? What other holds comparable potential for sudden and sweeping upheaval as the famines, food riots and other misery that could follow if we get it wrong?

So I read widely yesterday in search of the most insightful, analytical and thought-provoking coverage I could find of the IPCC’s current thinking on food and food security, as rendered by journalists and publications in the U.S. and abroad who pay special attention to the topic.

Here’s a selection of what I found, with links for further reading:

At Britain’s The Independent, science editor Steve Connor read the report to say that “the much-touted benefits of climate change — such as the ability to grow some crops such as vineyards at higher northerly latitudes — dwindle into insignificance compared to the enormous challenges produced by the much bigger downsides of a warmer and more stressed world.”

He quotes Christopher Field, the Carnegie Institution ecologist who co-chaired the report’s author group, as cautioning that the observed impacts of climate change are already widespread and “we’re not talking about hypothetical events.”

“It is true that we can’t find many benefits of climate change and I believe it’s because there aren’t many benefits, even though we tried really hard to find them. There are a few places where there are a few benefits of warming but there are many other places where there are widespread negative impacts.”

Sam Brasch, writing for the U.S. magazine Modern Farmer, was among the few writers who found at least the tone of this year’s report to be less bleak than the last.

All together, the panel dropped many of the super-specific predictions that earned rebukes in the past like the claim that yields in some parts of Africa could drop as much as 50 percent by 2020. Instead, they struck a tone of well-founded risk assessment.

This is a report for a savvy poker player — or maybe farm investor. It is not a piece of Biblical plague literature. Still, the challenge feeding a growing population in a warming world only appears more daunting compared to the last report in 2007.

On the subject of adaptation by farmers, Brasch notes the report’s finding that incremental changes in farming practices may well work for a while, but will lose their efficacy as warming and its impacts intensify. And the opportunities to adapt will not be distributed evenly:

If you are a 21st century farmer, here’s where you want to be: Somewhere cool with some cush crop insurance and government that is willing and able to help out. Having a wheat-based system would be best. Avoid the tropics, where even aggressive adaptation efforts might not do much good in combating higher temperatures, extreme weather volatility, droughts or rising sea levels if you are farming in a low-lying area.

Emma Bryce, New York-based writer of the “World on a Plate” feature at Britain’s The Guardian, found this year’s report less optimistic than its 2007 predecessor, which was “by no means cheery.” The tropics seemed headed for trouble back then, “but in some temperate regions, warming would make conditions more favourable for crops in a way that would offset losses in other parts of the globe.”

And if this year’s report is less optimistic than the last, other research is even less so. Writing of a recent analysis at the University of Leeds, she says:

“On average, we are looking at yield decreases. By the 2030s most of the changes in crop yields are negative,” says Andy Challinor, University of Leeds climate researcher, author on the paper, and on the new IPCC report, too. “The second half of the century is when the negative impact in yields becomes more common.”

The researchers found this by comparing results from almost 100 independent studies—more than double the number used in the IPCC’s [new] assessment—that measured the impact of higher temperatures on three of the globe’s primary staple crops: maize, wheat, and rice.

 It’s currently the largest dataset we have that demonstrates how crops will respond to changing climates, and it suggests that decreases in yields will grow larger, affect both temperate regions and the tropics, and become increasingly erratic as the weather turns more unpredictable too.

Once mid-century hits, crop losses of up to 25% will become more commonplace, as well—a number that does account for basic mitigation efforts in farming regimes.

Bryce’s Guardian colleague, Suzanne Goldenberg, felt that this year’s report departed from predecessors in “drawing a clear line connecting climate change to food scarcity and conflict,” including “for instance, the riots in Asia and Africa after food price shocks in 2008.”

The report said climate change had already cut into the global food supply. Global crop yields were beginning to decline – especially for wheat – raising doubts as to whether production could keep up with population growth.

“It has now become evident in some parts of the world that the green revolution has reached a plateau,” [IPCC chairman Rajendra] Pachauri said.

The future looks even more grim. Under some scenarios, climate change could lead to dramatic drops in global wheat production as well as reductions in maize.

“Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton professor and an author of the report.

Other food sources are also under threat. Fish catches in some areas of the tropics are projected to fall by between 40% and 60%, according to the report.

Over at, editors spotlighted an analysis by the AP’s Seth Borenstein which said, in part, that changing climate “doesn’t mean in 50 years there will be less food grown.”

Thanks to the ‘green revolution’ of improved agricultural techniques, crop production is growing about 10 percent per decade and climate change is likely to reduce yields by 1 percent a decade, so crop production will still go up, but not as fast, said David Lobell of Stanford University, one of the authors of the report’s chapter on food problems.

Still, it is as if an anchor is weighing down the improvements to agriculture, Pachauri and Field said. Some places have seen crop yield increases drop from 2 percent a year to 1 percent or even plateau. And places like India, where 800 million people rely on rainfall not irrigation, the green revolution never improved crops much, Pachauri said….

Food prices are likely to go up somewhere in a wide range of 3 percent to 84 percent by 2050 just because of climate change, the report said. “In a world where a billion people are already going hungry, this makes it harder for more people to feed their families,” said Tim Gore of Oxfam International, who wasn’t part of this study.

Pitta Clark, writing for the Financial Times of London, was among the writers who chose to look more closely at likely impacts of climate change on particular crops and the regions in which they are grown, and to find some mixed results:

The effects of climate change on two other crucial foods, rice and soybeans, have been smaller in the most important producing countries, the IPCC says, and there may be some positive effects on crops in cooler climates in future.

However, the outlook for wheat, rice and maize production in tropical and temperate regions is expected to be more negative than positive.

Only a few writers looked beyond changing climate’s impact on food quantity to consider changes in quality as well. Modern Farmer’s Brash noted that studies connected to the new report “have shown that cereal crops grown in elevated CO2 end up having less protein. That’s because both biotic and abiotic stresses on the plants could make it harder for them to process air, water and minerals, making foods less nutritious for humans and their livestock.”

And the Independent’s Connor, who I’m guessing may not be totally vegan, noted that “meat and cheese may have to be off the menu if there is to be any hope of hitting climate change targets,”  because “cutting greenhouse gas emissions from energy use and transport will not be enough on its own to hold down the global temperature rise.

The research indicates it will also be necessary to slash emissions from agriculture – meaning curbing meat and dairy consumption. Without such action, nitrous oxide emissions from fields and methane from livestock may double by 2070. . . Dr Fredrik Hedenus of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, said:

“We have shown that reducing meat and dairy consumption is key to bringing agricultural climate pollution down to safe levels.”

* * *

The IPCC’s “summary for policymakers” can be read here, and online video of the press conference held to announce its release can be viewed here.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/01/2014 - 09:00 am.

    How we respond to the challenge of food shortage

    By devoting 40% of the world’s largest corn crop, not to mention soybeans, to making moonshine to put in our gas tanks. And the push is on to require 15% of gasoline to be ethanol so we can process more food into ethanol. And there is plenty of gas and no need for the stuff.
    And the earth has never been greener.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2014 - 01:47 pm.

      And even greener

      are the pockets of the agribusiness corporations, including the corporate farms that produce most of what we eat.
      There are still a lot of small family farms around, but they’re not a significant factor in our total food production.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/01/2014 - 11:25 am.

    I’m trying to imagine

    …how this culture will/would respond to the notion that we should eat – I’m just making this up – half the meat and cheese of what we currently consume per capita. How many in Congress who represent states where agriculture is heavily invested in beef and dairy production are going to be reelected on a platform of “Eat less meat! Eat less milk and cheese!”?

    Beyond that, I continue to be puzzled by the ongoing and continued silence from both environmental and governmental fronts regarding population control, since population growth drives virtually everything agricultural and economic, including global warming, environmental degradation, and resource depletion.

    Catholic doctrine against birth control that might have been justifiable, or at least defensible, 2,000 years ago, but it makes absolutely no sense now, nor does the Protestant fundamentalist equivalent. If we’re short of food, it’s because we’re feeding far more people than was the case even half a century ago. Political leaders, I assume, are smart enough to connect those dots, but apparently are terrified of offending devoutly religious constituents.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2014 - 01:44 pm.

      Who said religion

      had to make sense?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2014 - 01:52 pm.

      The problem is

      that expanding population is pretty well out of our control.
      Most of the expansion of our population is due to immigration.

      The two biggest populations are India and China, which are beyond our control.

      And the place where population is growing most rapidly is Africa; again beyond our effective control (hey, a recent president barred us from doing anything to promote birth control in foreign countries!). The best thing that we could do to limit population growth would be to bomb Africa with condoms; male and female.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 04/01/2014 - 05:28 pm.


      are also afraid of hard choices like carbon taxes. Propose a ten cent rise in the gasoline tax, and you lose the next election. Worldwide, coal consumption is rising, and that will apparently continue along with more CO2.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/01/2014 - 01:28 pm.

    The glib answer is to just plant further north.

    The problem is that soil fertility is built over thousands of years–this map shows that soil fertility is not uniform and drops off north of the temperate zone for Europe and the US.

    More inputs will be required to produce the same amount crops.

    And then there is the matter of different sunlight hours that screws with the timing of crops.

    Not good at all.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/01/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    (quote)In a paper published


    In a paper published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, North Carolina State University agricultural and resource economist Dr. Michael Roberts and Dr. Wolfram Schlenker, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University, predict that U.S. crop yields could decrease by 30 to 46 percent over the next century under slow global warming scenarios, and by a devastating 63 to 82 percent under the most rapid global warming scenarios. The warming scenarios used in the study – called Hadley III models – were devised by the United Kingdom’s weather service.

    The study shows that crop yields tick up gradually between roughly 10 and 30 degrees Celsius, or about 50 to 86 degrees Farenheit. But when temperature levels go over 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 degrees Farenheit) for corn, 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Farenheit) for soybeans and 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Farenheit) for cotton, yields fall steeply.

    (end quote)

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/02/2014 - 04:33 pm.


    I notice the deniers we’ve seen on previous articles about global warming haven’t bothered to show up for this one. I have a feeling though that if they did they would find some other small point to quibble about and try to extrapolate that to mean all the science behind global warming is bunk.

    97% of scientists believe global warming is real? It must be made up, even if there are a lot of studies to support the position.

    3% think global warming is a load of horse manure? Well, sign them up for another helping of that, even if the studies they cite are proven to be riper than a road apple on an August day.

    No amount of evidence for the former is great enough to sway them. And no tidbit, no matter how small or odious, is too awful to gobble up without checking a single fact.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/02/2014 - 11:53 pm.

      Interesting Monologue

      I have been busy in the education section lately… That and trying to determine what 7.1 million really means over on g2a…

      All I have to say is:
      – birth control in India and Africa would be a good thing (CAGW or not)
      – thank heavens for the genetic modification of crops (adaptation will be quicker if necessary)
      – maybe I will take up farming, food prices may start increasing
      – I need to invent a way to stop livestock from passing gas (may be valuable soon)
      – Thank Heavens for our 10,000 lakes… A couple of degrees warmer in June would be great…

  6. Submitted by Terry Houle on 04/03/2014 - 12:27 pm.

    Reduce your carbon footprint going forward

    Solar Energy Workshop for Your Congregation
    Saturday, April 12, 2014 @ 8:30am-12pm
    (8:30-9 registration & refreshments)
    Christ the King Lutheran Church
    8600 Fremont Avenue, Bloomington


    GCC fb page

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