Unprecedented heat will trigger global food crisis
From Friday's Globe and Mail
January 8, 2009 at 10:18 PM EST
TORONTO The world faces a perpetual food crisis because global warming will likely lead to massive and simultaneous crop failures in many regions, possibly as early as the period from 2040 to 2060, a new study says.
The finding, appearing in the journal Science, is based on climate models that suggest the worst heat waves of the past such as the one in Europe in 2003 that killed at least 30,000 people are likely to become the new normal summertime temperatures.
Although the trend to extreme heat becoming the new normal could start in some parts of the world by mid-century, well within the lifetimes of many people now alive, the researchers are confident it will become a global phenomenon between 2080 and 2100.
Rising temperatures will wither crops that are heat-sensitive, including staples such as wheat, possibly cutting yields by 20 per cent to 40 per cent, according to the study, conducted by scientists at two U.S. universities. The impact will not be as pronounced on some crops, such as millet, that are more heat tolerant but not exactly palate pleasers.
The principal author of the study, University of Washington climate researcher David Battisti, says the reduction in yields of some of the world's most important food crops will have dire results, particularly in the tropics and subtropics, where many people are already malnourished.
For me, this is the strongest argument that either you have to do something about global warming or you need to actually figure out how you're going to deal with these kind of permanent reductions in yield, Dr. Battisti said.
In an interview, Dr. Battisti contended that global warming's effect on agriculture is likely to be a larger threat to humanity than the submerging of coastal cities due to melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.
This is going to unfold in the next 100 years, he said, whereas the sea-level changes are going to probably, most likely, unfold over the next 300 to 400 years.
Models run to predict climate conditions due to higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have typically focused on the threat of droughts in subtropical areas and not on the problems that accompany rising temperatures, as was done in this study.
But extreme heat can be as damaging to crops as insufficient moisture. Plants have an optimum temperature for growing and making seeds. Once it is exceeded, there is a reduction in leaf development and the size of kernels, key factors in determining yields.
During recent heat waves, such as the one in France, the poor harvests were mitigated because the rest of the global food system was still functioning well. The study said this may not be possible in the future because many areas could suffer extreme temperatures simultaneously.
It will be extremely difficult to balance food deficits in one part of the world with food surpluses in another unless major investments are made soon to develop heat-tolerant crops and better irrigation, the study states.
The effect on agriculture due to global warming is a controversial topic, with several factors suggested that might ease the damage.
Higher temperatures will extend the growing season in northern countries such as Russia and Canada. Plants also grow better in an atmosphere richer in carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
But Dr. Battisti said higher temperatures will benefit only northern agricultural areas over the next few decades, and by the end of the century, they too could suffer from heat stress. Even farther north, in Arctic areas, soil isn't suitable for farming. You can't move that far north because all you end up with is pretty infertile tundra, he said.
The climate models used in the study were developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific group that recently won a Nobel Prize for its work on global warming. Dr. Battisti said the strength of these models, which rely on computer simulations to calculate the odds of future climate patterns, is that they're reasonably accurate in forecasts of average temperatures.
One way to prevent the threat to crops would be to breed varieties better able to withstand high temperatures, but this might take decades.
The study's co-author, Rosamond Naylor, director of the program on food security at Stanford University in California, says major cereal crops such as wheat, rice and corn are the most sensitive to high seasonal temperatures. Elevated nighttime readings are seen to cause the most damage to these plants.
But she said other cereals have evolved to tolerate higher temperatures. These include sorghum, millets and teff, a cereal crop popular in Ethiopia.
Best comments on Martin Mittelstaedts Unprecedented heat will trigger global food crisis:
There were 413 comments in all, but these 7 spoke to the root issue: Population growth
Biggest Redneck from United States writes: William J Gillies from Canada writes: Farm Boy from The Boonies, Canada writes: 'To pretend that humans can collectively engineer the environment or climate to prevent this is the ultimate delusion.'
And the existing 6.5 billion humans had no impact either. Right.
Not on the climate. They have overfished the oceans and polluted lakes rivers and countless acres of land though.
I for one would like to see more effort to clean up that impact rather then worrying about a rise in temp of 1 deg over a 100 years that has as yet not been proven is going to continue.
No Coalition from Canada writes: At some point, we are going to need to recognize that food in general is going to be in short supply if we keep thinking the human race has unlimited growth potential. Forget future renewal plant stocks. What about the threatened fish stocks. That is happening right now due to Chinese trawlers overfishing the oceans. Population controls are going to be something we will be talking about increasingly in the years to come.
It's either that or figure out real fast how to terraform Mars
Jacoba M from Hamilton, Canada writes: Even going beyond any of the Global Warming issues, think about the amount of farm lands that have been getting slowly swallowed up by housing developments and golf courses. I can remember driving down #5Hwy (Dundas St, for those from Toronto) and not seeing the city for a great distance. Now it is severly encrouching on the farms that actually lie just north of the Hwy. It is scary to think that our own advancements in science and technology can't think of better places to put people, or better ways to expand cities without destroying the farm lands that do provide our food. No one really considers that funny cow manure smell coming from the farm down the road as anything other than a 'fowl smell that kicks up when the wind is right', and they get ticked off. But think about what come out of those creatures, Steak, all of your meat section at the grocery store in fact comes from some sort of farm; or the dairy section; or all of the other crops/vegtables etc…..how can any of those things be produced when the farms are getting wiped out!! Note: Immigrant-driven population growth is converting 60,000 acres a year of prime farmland in Ontario, home of Canadas best land, into houses and big box stores. The story is similar in BC. Canada has lost almost 20% of its Class 1 farmland in that fashion. This in a country where only 5% of the land mass is arable, not all of it so fertile, and none of it without the help of fossil fuels or draft animals and animal fertilizer we dont have. This catastrophe is happening at a torrid pace right under our noses RIGHT NOW. We dont need modeling to confirm what is happening and we will be helpless long before the mega heat waves arrive that some models predict.
R. Carriere from Maritimes, Canada writes:
You can talk all you want about lack of food, climate change -global warming-global cooling-pollution, lack of water, but until you start dealing with the real problem, that being over-population, it's basically turning a blind eye to the root problem.
Today the earth houses some 6.7 billion with forcasts of 9 billion by 2040 barring any cataclysmic catastrophe.
All these people need Maslow's basics of food clothing and shelter. If you believe just food will be a problem, just think about GHGs and air and water pollution along with the dwindling of other resources.
Chris E. from Canada writes: In the 1970's, when the world population reached 4 billion, science and journalism had more honesty, and over-population was was a hot topic.
Now, global over-population is a non-topic. The reason is that it is a huge 'business opportunity' for multi-nationals to get rich off of. They are looking for ways to profit from band-aid solutions to the symptoms caused by too many people being born, while keeping 'over-population' off the front pages.
Building an Ark from Eastern Slopes, Canada writes: Tom Moffatt from CO2burg, AB, Canada writes: Congratulations, Canada, on being a world leader in destroying food supplies. 40 million tons of CO2 per year just from Fort McMurray.
Tom, dear Tom you need to take your rants to ROBERT MUGABE, who turned the former bread basket of Africa into parchland, without any help from Fort McMurray. Hurray for Tom the misinformed poster of food!!! Note. Canada collectively emits 750 mt of GHG annually. Fort McMurray emits 40mt of GHG annually, or less than 5% of that total. One half a million people enter Canada as legitimate immigrants, refugees, or people on temporary visas (who often over-stay their expiry dates and are never deported). That group would emit 11.9 mt of GHG, or about 3% of the total for the whole country. But they added to a growing portion of foreign born residents who emit 135mt of GHG or 18% of the countrys total emission. So yes, immigrants are not to be the scapegoats for GHG in Canada. But 18% is a fair chunk of the problem, especially if their children are added to the total. And it is immigrant growth which accounts for 70% of Canadas population growth, a percentage that will only grow with time. Not something to ignore, surely, but somehow Greens manage to do it. TM
Thomas Jefferson from Toronto, Canada writes: Overpopulation, not so-called 'Global Warming' (climate change is a better word as not everywhere is getting warmer) is the real cause. Birth control is our only salvation friends
Middlestaedts article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090108.
As for the notion that GW will bring a longer growing season to Canada for a net benefit, one Randy McClure writes: You cant grow much grain in the Canadian Shield—gravel and boulders arent known for their fertility—not to mention the acidic soil.
Bill Williams of Guelph, Ontario declares that David Suzuki does valuable work in alerting the public about AGW. Perhaps, but does he do ANY work in offering a comprehensive reason for it? Has he ever PUBLICLY identified population growth as a key driver? We know that an arsonist is setting fires in the neighbourhood. We know that there are more suspicious fires than is the norm. But why wont Suzuki identify the arsonist? Could it have any thing to do with who makes up the donor base to the David Suzuki Foundation? Not only the PC myopic yuppie greenies but the corporation which kicks in for cash and hands out awards to Canadas environmental point man. The corporation which petitioned the Canadian government to hike immigration levels by 167% to 400,000 consumers annually so that it give out more mortgage loans to more home buyers and fund more development projects on the farm land that surrounds many of Canadas urban centres. The same corporation that bought silence from Nature Conservancy of Canada so that it could threaten species at risk by expediting these developments? Dr. Suzuki, as evidenced in his public remarks in Australia and private remarks in Canada, is quite aware of the impact of population growth on the environment. He tells the silent lie because he is paid to do so.
Bill Williams did, however, express a sentiment that resonates with me: I don't advocate for global warming theory. I advocate for full and complete analysis of the work being done. I advocate for a role in government making sure that the proper resources can be brought to bear to pursue ANY line of inquiry, including theory that challenges the prevailing view. But I also advocate for ACTING on what that most objective research tells us. I advocate against trying to stall and hope that the science will tell us something different, or delay in the hope that some engineer will make the problem go away.
If one reads all 413 comments, it is apparent that, at the grass roots level, the issue of AGW is still a controversial one. Therefore I am apt to fall back on my basic premise, whether human-caused climate change is fact or theory, we know that population growth would be a prime culprit if AGW is unfolding, and we have the certainty that is critical to biodiversity loss. So why not then focus on population growth and direct our energies to stopping it?
The next project is to sort through this long thread of comments again and isolate the specifically cornucopian remarks that we encounter time and time again. (Eg. It is a problem of inequality and mal-distribution, not overpopulation. Tackle Monsanto and there would be enough food to go around. ) If I compile a list of the most articulate cornucopian clichs from these over 400 comments, it might provoke the composition of short pre-fabricated sound-bites that John Feeney has been working on. A list of ready-made rebuttals to these arguments can each be given a link so that we can simply reply to a combatant with the link, rather than re-invent the wheel with a long protracted rebuttal. You are welcome to do the same, and perhaps forward them to John at GPSO, or me. Brishen Hoff has already done work of this nature (eg. Environmental Myths). To coalesce all of them would be most efficient.