June 06, 2011

This Weekend’s News: The Spoiling in a Warming World

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
explained in its Sunday story, Yemen is just one of many countries
that have been afflicted by a decades-long trend around shrinking food

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

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
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.

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
. 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
. 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