Grist starts its article off with a grim scenario. “It’s the year 2026. A poor monsoon season in India leads to low wheat output, which is followed by a surprise thaw and refreeze that flattens crops in the Black Sea region, and a bad Chinese wheat harvest. Russia and some other producers impose export restrictions to conserve food. Next, drought strikes the U.S., and things suddenly aren’t looking good for soy and corn, either. Then, because nothing can possibly go right, the second monsoon season fails in India. Panic ensues and households in some countries start hoarding rice! Importers start bidding up for larger orders of grains! There are more export taxes and restrictions and the cost of food increases!”
They reference a report by academics and policy makers led by David King, someone well known in climate circles, titled ‘Extreme Weather and Resilience of the Global Food System.’ They start their report by recapping the most recent fluctuation in food prices: “By 2050, the FAO estimates that demand for food will increase over 60% above the current situation. Demand growth is driven by population and demographic change, and increasing global wealth. This, in turn, leads to greater per capita food demand, often associated with demand for more livestock produce. In 2007/8, a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock-to-use levels, led to rapid food price inflation, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index and associated with the main internationally traded grains1 . This increase was compounded by some countries imposing barriers to local export, to ensure their own food security, leading to an FAO price spike of over 100%. A similar price spike occurred in 2010/11, partly influenced by weather in Eastern Europe and Russia.”
However the UN’s FAO shows a chart indicating that the very real price shock had no effect on the steady decline in the number of malnourished people.
From 1 billion malnourished people in 1992 to just under 800 million in 2013, the decline has been notable and consistent. The 2015 FAO report on food security is found here and it makes for interesting reading. The headline should be that during a period when global population rose by 1.9 billion, the number of malnourished dropped by 216 million, an astonishing achievement.
It is easy to construct an End of Days scenario for food production. As Grist writes, “After analyzing historical records, the team came up with a doomsday scenario, in which Murphy’s Law rules. The result is not pretty. The people hit hardest would be those living in poor countries that import grains.”
But the King report notes something that is certainly counter-intuitive, if not mind bogglingly strange. ” Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances.”
It is my strong impression (influenced undoubtedly by Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist, as well as other writers) that global trade is our best defense against individual production shocks. So I certainly agree with the King report when it writes “More research is needed to understand and quantify the risks set out in this report. Our assessment is that they are non-trivial and increasing, but our knowledge of how extreme weather may be connected across the world, and hence the precise probability of multiple bread basket failures, is limited by available model simulations. Modelling limitations also constrain our ability to understand how production shocks translate into short run price impacts.”
The FAO notes again that food production is rising at 1.5% per year, faster in fact than the population, which is growing at 1.1% annually. However, because people want more meat when they can start to afford it and livestock needs to be fed, the FAO estimates that food production will need to rise by 60% by 2050. Which it is on pace to do.
However, the IPCC has said that some of the first ‘shocks’ to our climate will start being evident starting around 2040–that droughts will get more intense in some areas and floods stronger and more intense in others. Those prancing around saying that this extreme weather has already arrived are not only wrong, they are crying wolf in a most unhelpful fashion.
However, 2040 is not far off. So here’s a suggestion: Temperatures were rising at about 1.9C back before the pause–I think in the decade ending in 2003, if I remember correctly. So let’s set up an early warning system. If we get 5 consecutive years of temperature rises matching that rate of increase, let’s automatically set up food storage facilities near areas most likely to be affected by food production stocks and fill them as a ready reserve. As temperatures warm or cool, we can adjust the amount of food being stored accordingly. We can sell the oldest stock in the reserves on an annual basis to keep it fit for consumption. If we plan it correctly, it doesn’t have to have an impact on local farmers–we can buy their products for the reserve first.
Observers will note that I am not the first to talk about food reserves in a multi-national context and that many of the arguments made in 1977 are valid today. They will also note that those arguments were salient before discussion of climate change dominated every aspect of social policy.
As a Lukewarmer, I readily accept that even modest climate change can have a disproportionate effect on the world’s poor. Marshaling aid as a preventive measure only makes sense. The grain producing countries of the world already store much of their produce against a rainy day. Let’s just move the storage across the borders to where it is likely to be needed most.