June 13, 2011

Global Food Supply Going Strong

Filed under: Agriculture

The New York Times recently ran a front page article by Justin Gillis titled “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself” in which Gillis repeats the well-worn alarmist mantra that anthropogenic climate change spurred by greenhouse gas emissions is leading us down a terrible pathway towards death and destruction. The contents of this article splashed across all media outlets.

Here is the gist:

“The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.

…Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.”

And to try to cut the tried and true carbon-dioxide-is-good-for-crops argument off at the chase, Gillis adds:

For nearly two decades, scientists had predicted that climate change would be relatively manageable for agriculture, suggesting that even under worst-case assumptions, it would probably take until 2080 for food prices to double.

In part, they were counting on a counterintuitive ace in the hole: that rising carbon dioxide levels, the primary contributor to global warming, would act as a powerful plant fertilizer and offset many of the ill effects of climate change.

Until a few years ago, these assumptions went largely unchallenged. But lately, the destabilization of the food system and the soaring prices have rattled many leading scientists.

But alas, Gillis’s proclamation, like so many that came before him, just doesn’t stand up to the facts.

Roger Pielke Jr. was quick to point this out, writing at his blog:

Today’s New York Times has an article by Justin Gillis on global food production that strains itself to the breaking point to make a story fit a narrative. The narrative, of course, is that climate change “is helping to destabilize the food system.” The problem with the article is that the data that it presents don’t support this narrative.

Roger backs his critique with a graphic of food production vs. time, taken from Gillis’s very own article:

The central thesis of the NYT article is the following statement:

“The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.”

But this claim of slowing output is shown to be completely false by the graphic that accompanies the article, shown below. Far from slowing, farm output has increased dramatically over the past half-century (left panel) and on a per capita basis in 2009 was higher than at any point since the early 1980s (right panel).

Roger concludes:

Some important issues beyond carbon dioxide are raised in the article, but are presented as secondary to the carbon narrative. Other important issues are completely ignored — for example, wheat rust goes unmentioned, and it probably has a greater risk to food supplies in the short term than anything to do with carbon dioxide.

The carbon dioxide-centric focus on the article provides a nice illustration of how an obsession with “global warming” can serve to distract attention from factors that actually matter more for issues of human and environmental concern.

And as if on cue to ease Roger’s concern about the threat of wheat rust, comes word that at this week’s Global Wheat Rust Symposium that an announcement will be made that scientists are very close to producing “super varieties” of wheat that will be resistant to deadly form of the wheat rust pathogen and at the same time increase wheat yield by as much as 15 percent. It seems that now the biggest challenge to overcome is getting the new varieties into the 225-odd million hectares of wheat fields across the world which grow varieties susceptible to the wheat rust pathogen.

This breakthrough on wheat rust goes to show that there is a lot of work going on that is aimed at developing new varieties of food crops that are designed to better perform in the face of the environmental conditions that they encounter. This has been the case for as long as humans relied on food supplies that they realized that they have some control over.

Gillis’ pessimism, and all the similar ones that have come before, is premised upon the ‘dumb farmer scenario’—that is, farmers and crop scientists will sit idly by adhering to old ways in the face of changing environmental conditions and declining crop yields. This simply has never been the case (as the continuing rise in grain production in the Figure above shows), nor should it be the expectation for the future.

A response (Hockley et al., 2009) in Science magazine to another pessimistic food-outlook-in-the-face-of-climate-change article (Battisti and Naylor, 2009) had this to say:

The future productivity of world agriculture will therefore depend on whether the development and adoption of new varieties and techniques can keep pace with the changing climate and whether improvements in long-range forecasting can keep pace with increases in interseasonal variation. Commercial interests will probably ensure this happens for major crops and richer countries, but substantial public service breeding will be needed for minor crops that are currently prevalent in many tropical areas.

In other words, we’ll find a way to keep our major food crops flourishing, and with a little extra effort, so too will it be for our minor crops. The upcoming announcement on wheat rust is proof and point.

And talk, like Gillis’s that:

Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.

is just not backed by scientific research.

Nor is talk that climate change induced spikes in the price of food has, according to Gillis “worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen.”

But what is supported by a lot of scientific research is that enhanced atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increases crop health, production, and nutrition, and that farmers continually employ the latest technologies (including crop varieties) to increase their yields.

A rational view of the situation regarding humans ability to feed themselves is that we continue to do better (with a little help from rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations) and that any obstacles presented by climate change will be met and overcome to the best of our abilities (now and to come).

But this is not to say that we may not raise other obstacles—some even in the name of “doing something” about climate change. For instance, a new study by Indur Goklany (2011) concluded that in 2010 alone the biofuels policies of the developed world caused 192,000 excess deaths in the developing world, from malnutrition and poverty exacerbated by resulting increases in food prices—a seemingly worse outcome than that posed by the “problem” that such policies were trying to address in the first place.

The bottom line is that issues involving the global food supply are complex and require careful analysis in order to best serve human welfare.


Battisti, D.S., and R.L. Naylor, 2009. Historical warnings of future food insecurity with unprecedented seasonal heat. Science, 323, 240-244.

Goklany, I., 2011. Could biofuel policies increase death and disease in developing countries? Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, 16, 9-13.

Hockley, N., Gibbons, J.M., and G. Edwards-Jones, 2009. Risks of Extreme Heat and Unpredictability. Science, 324, 177.

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