A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself

The subject heading is the title of the front page article by Justin Gillis in this morning's New York Times.  It's a long multi-page feature.  It begins:

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, Mexico — The dun wheat field spreading out at Ravi P. Singh’s feet offered a possible clue to human destiny. Baked by a desert sun and deliberately starved of water, the plants were parched and nearly dead. 

Dr. Singh, a wheat breeder, grabbed seed heads that should have been plump with the staff of life. His practiced fingers found empty husks.

“You’re not going to feed the people with that,” he said.

But then, over in Plot 88, his eyes settled on a healthier plant, one that had managed to thrive in spite of the drought, producing plump kernels of wheat. “This is beautiful!” he shouted as wheat beards rustled in the wind.

Hope in a stalk of grain: It is a hope the world needs these days, for the great agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble.

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.

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. 
Those price jumps, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen. The Haitian government was ousted in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the recent Arab uprisings.

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.
Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to the price gyrations. 


I had one long phone conversation with Justin Gillis about this piece.  It was awhile back.  He had spoken with everyone and visited the major research centers.  By the time he spoke with me he really knew his stuff. It's nice work.  And it's nice to see this issue get front page billing.

I'm mentioned with Wolfram Schlenker in the section "Shaken Assumptions".


  1. Gillis' article is good however I think there are some crucial elements missing from my perspective:
    The CGIAR system and agricultural research monies has taken perennial draconian budget cuts for sure. If we examine closer to home, agricultural extension services of almost all 50 states have been reduced drastically, some to mere shadows of their former selves. State and federal agriculture research stations and Universities are kept tense with the constant drone of those horrible words: Budget Cuts. Take a stroll over to Williams Hall to see a crumbling building around a powerhouse Crops and Soils departments. If agriculture were truly considered as critical as Gillis logically concludes, we'd be in state of the art labs and workspace over there.
    Secondly, he flip flops between climate change and global warming. I thought Andrew Revkin whipped all those writers and editors over at the Times into shape. Pick one and lets ring the bell.
    Lastly, and this is really a question for you: Where does Goldman Sachs and even more importantly, private equity in general fit into all this? Harpers carried a story a while back on the G.S. Commodity Index. The writer, who's name eludes me, found that their new investment instrument, namely, the grain exchanges in Kansas, Minneapolis, and Chicago, were going to be the new Mortgage Vegas. Bet Hard Winter, Soft Spring Red, and throw it Long all to watch the market go bananas. Like tall kids playing keep-away with our hats.
    I can only hope Obama is listening to Rosensweig and not the ululating coffers of 2012.

  2. myventuri:

    I agree with you that there should be more public funding of basic research in the crop sciences and CGIARs. The Bill and Melinda Gates probably can't completely fill that gap. Even with funding it will take time--something that I think was clear in the article.

    But I also think that is different than traditional extension services in the US. Today we need extension services in places like Africa.

    Goldman Sachs is going to try to profit off the price swings, as will Cargill and many others. It's a free market. But I believe strongly that the prices are driven by fundamentals--supply and demand. I've said as much many times on this blog.

    In short, if commodity price rises were simply a speculative bubble we should simultaneously see inventory declines. We don't see that in food commodities. Maybe there's a bubble in gold and silver.

  3. Oops. I have a typo in that comment: We should wee see inventories INCREASING if there is a speculative bubble. We're not seeing that today.


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