Food Security and Climate Change

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.

FAO Food Security 2015

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.

11 responses to “Food Security and Climate Change

  1. I got the sense many solutions are just too global. They ignore local conditions. Where were the locations with serious famine in the last ten years? What caused those famines? What’s their population growth rate?

  2. It is interesting to note that tyrannies like Zimbabwe, N Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, are all hostile to trade and are all vulnerable to a lesser or greater degree of famine.
    It is also interesting to note that nations Afghanistan and Ethiopia went from net food producers to importers or even famine when their governments were either taken over or overthrown by collectivist forces.
    Population does not seem to have had much to do with it.

  3. I find this observation odd: “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.”

    Earlier, they write that “[t]his [price] increase was compounded by some countries imposing barriers to local export.” In other words, the restriction of trade exacerbated the problem.

    On a side note, I’m afraid your stockpiling approach, while laudably focused on a real measure rather than climate model prediction, is impractical. 5 years at 1.9 K/century is only 0.1 K, which would be triggered far too easily by climatic “noise”. I don’t see a problem with a normal approach to emergency storage — stockpile in good years, release in bad ones. Yes, a run of many bad years may exceed the capacity; as always, the question is how much to pay for what level of insurance. Climate change or no.

  4. “They reference a report by academics and policy makers led by David King”

    That will be THIS David King, presumably?

    Antarctica is likely to be the world’s only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the Government’s chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, said last week.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/why-antarctica-will-soon-be-the-ionlyi-place-to-live–literally-58574.html

    “Government scientist” is the oxymoron to beat all oxymorons.

  5. Tom,

    “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”

    Yes, but why should we believe that? First, the 2040 date is likely based on exaggerated estimates of both the rate of increase in forcing and the climate sensitivity. Second, the climate models do a really bad job on regional scale change, which is what is involved here. Third, the wet-gets-wetter-dry-gets-drier meme appears to be based on bad physics. Increased precipitation means increased latent heat release which results in increased wind divergence; that spreads out the precipitation. But that phenomenon is not captured by the precipitation parameterizations that are used because precipitation is a sub-grid-scale process.

    “Temperatures were rising at about 1.9C back before the pause”

    Per century, I suppose. That was a likely combination of anthropogenic and natural increases just as the pause is likely a combination of natural decrease and anthropogenic increase. So why should that be some sort of magic number?

    “If we get 5 consecutive years of temperature rises matching that rate of increase”

    That would be a meaningless statistical fluctuation. As HaroldW points out, that is a change of only about 0.1 C. The r.m.s average difference from one year to the next is a tad larger than that. Plus, there is the issue I raised above.

    “As temperatures warm or cool, we can adjust the amount of food being stored accordingly”

    You are making an unfounded, and likely backwards, assumption about the relation between food production and temperature.

    “As a Lukewarmer, I readily accept that even modest climate change can have a disproportionate effect on the world’s poor.”

    Agreed. Especially if you stipulate (as I think you do) that the reason is that lack of resources make it hard to deal with any challenges that may arise. But again, there is the question of the direction of the effect. I think that higher CO2, longer growing seasons, and more rain would likely help agriculture and the poor. On the other hand, a return to little ice age conditions would almost surely be catastrophic.

    • Tom,
      Mike is correct. The IPCC is just making this up about future shocks because their earlier predictions have failed. And the idea that taxing CO2 today and spending that money on windmills or solar panels will minimize those droughts or prevent them should be the punchline to a withering joke, not a serious proposal by allegedly bright people.

  6. Storing some food for possible emergency use is a good idea! Joseph recommended it in Egypt several eons ago, in anticipation of 7 years of bad harvests. It was a good idea then, and it still is, independent of assessment of the possible cause of a food emergency.

  7. I recommend readers listen to the latest podcast at econtalk.org.

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