Yesterday, The New York Times ran a lengthy story on how climate change is affecting global food production, with consequences that cut across the full spectrum of society, from rising prices, worsening hunger to destabilizing governments across the world.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that instability and unrest in Yemen has been fueled in part by a lack of access to water and rising food prices. As The New York Times explained in its Sunday story, Yemen is just one of many countries that have been afflicted by a decades-long trend around shrinking food production:
Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.
The United States and other western nations have been largely insulated from instability surrounding rising food prices for much of the last decade in part because, unlike developing nations, the cost of buying food represents a much, much smaller percentage of annual incomes in developed countries. But in nations where people spend 50 percent of their salary or more to feed their families, price spikes have much worse implications, including by “[worsening] hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen,” the Times reported. “The Haitian government was ousted in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the recent Arab uprisings.”
“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,” according to the Times. “Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.”
“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,” The New York Times reported. But whether or not climate change contributed to previous natural disasters or weather phenomenon that affected global food supply, in all likelihood climate change will have a pronounced impact on global food production in the future by exacerbating drought, temperature, precipitation and other climatic trends that negatively affect global food production.
What is more, a new scientific study is challenging existing assumptions that agricultural production would be somewhat insulated from climate change because of larger levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “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,” according to the Times. “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.” But recent scientific testing on soybeans and corn – two of the four primary grains consumed in the world – suggests quite the opposite:
When they grew the soybeans in the sort of conditions expected to prevail in a future climate, with high temperatures or low water, the extra carbon dioxide could not fully offset the yield decline caused by those factors. They also ran tests using corn, America’s single most valuable crop and the basis for its meat production and its biofuel industry. While that crop was already known to be less responsive to carbon dioxide, a yield bump was still expected — especially during droughts. The Illinois researchers got no bump. Their work has contributed to a broader body of research suggesting that extra carbon dioxide does act as plant fertilizer, but that the benefits are less than previously believed — and probably less than needed to avert food shortages.
Commodity food prices are set on the global market, so ensuring that production and prices are sustainable is a global challenge that will likely require a global solution. The United Nations projects global population to grow by 3 billion by 2100. Meeting food demand for that large of a global population would be difficult in the best conditions, and the world has anything but the best conditions. As The New York Times reported, “Unlike in the past, that demand must somehow be met on a planet where little new land is available for farming, where water supplies are tightening, where the temperature is rising, where the weather has become erratic and where the food system is already showing serious signs of instability.”
The United States may be able to withstand price spikes in the near term, but other countries already reeling from shocks to the global food system won’t be able to as easily absorb those rising prices, including countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen. The United States has an opportunity to lead an international effort to head off a global food crisis that could cripple those countries where the United States has long standing national security interests.
One thing is for certain: the challenges stemming from rising global food prices are not just issues that should be taken up solely by the U.S. Agency for International Development or Department of Agriculture. Rather, these are issues that like other natural security trends, including climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity, should be routinely integrated into our near- and long-term national security planning so that the U.S. government as a whole is well-prepared to meet the looming challenges in a warming world.
This Week’s Events
This morning at 9 AM, our friends at the Environmental Law Institute are exploring the national security and economic interests around the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Then tonight at 7 PM, head to Politics and Prose to get some ideas for the kinds of solutions needed to address the global food system in Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All.
On Wednesday at 9:30 AM, CSIS will host an event on Global Security Forum 2011: Tectonic Shift: Security Implications of the New Energy Landscape. At 10 AM, head to the International Food Policy Research Institute to discuss Lessons Learned and New Directions for the Middle East Water and Livelihoods Initiative (WLI). Then at 10:15 AM, go up on the Hill where Senator Udall will introduce the Udall-Giffords Department of Defense Energy Security Act of 2011 in a press conference. At 11:15 AM, find your way back to CSIS for a conversation on the Arctic in Global Security Forum 2011: Geopolitical and Geo-Economic Thinking on the Arctic. Finally at 3 PM on Wednesday, the Wilson Center will host Enhancing Public Engagement in Climate Change: The 2011 Climate Change Communicators of the Year .
On Thursday at 6:30 PM, the Asia Society will explore the challenges around climate change in the Himalayas in Revealed: The Himalayan Meltdown.