Food Security and Climate Change: The True Cost of Carbon

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With wheat prices surging as major producers are hit by droughts and other extreme weather events, it's costing everyone more to eat

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Writing on page one in the New York Times Justin Gillis recently sounded the alarm on what Lester Brown has been warning us for years: Climate change is threatening our food supply.

With fuel prices down (not much) we'd like to think the economy will settle down. But volatility in markets, food baskets, and weather are rattling many. Indeed, food, feed, and fuel prices are contributing to the growing political instability across the globe.

The Green Report

The summer heat engulfed towns felled by fiendish twisters. The Mighty Mississippi breached shores all along its course after being pounded by heavy rains and nourished by melting snow, the hangover from a brutal winter. The hundred-year floods inundated homes, homesteads, and farms, taking a toll on communities and commodities.

The wide swings in weather were matched by major outlier events. All of us experienced the shifting weather patterns. This is the new norm. And as the climate changes, the extremes are proving especially costly for global food security.

Grains are taking a particular beating. In the past year, wheat prices increased 75 percent. In 2009, the United Nations estimates, over one billion people were undernourished, and a greater toll is projected. Malnutrition -- accounting annually for 2.2 million under-five child deaths (and underlying much of childhood illness) -- is increasing, undermining health and well-being.

The U.S. has had more than its share of bad weather (and it doesn't seem to let up). The record-breaking, tornado-packed storm system that hit a dozen states this past spring killed over 300. The southwest has been in drought and aquifers, already overdrawn and underfed, were further challenged by summer dry spells and heatwaves. In April, 83 wildfires consumed hundreds of square miles of Texas in one week. Extreme weather has reduced grain yields in the Southeast and in the Midwest Corn Belt.

Globally, the trend is more pronounced.

Climate change -- warming and altered weather patterns -- is contributing to production short-falls and rising grain prices. (Increasing demands for meat and dairy products, higher fuel prices, and displacement of food crops by biofuel-bound crops are compounding factors.)

Warming, itself, is already damaging crops. Writing in Science magazine Stanford University's David Lobell and colleagues found that global maize and wheat production declined by 3.8 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively, from 1980 to 2008, due to rising global temperatures. Plants are, as we know, sensitive to warming and water stress, especially when hot days coincide with their reproductive stage (flowering). Warming is now costing consumers, agricultural companies, and livestock producers some $60 billion a year, the authors concluded.

But that, unfortunately, is not the worst of it. Extreme weather events were not addressed in the recent study, and they are playing a rapidly escalating role.

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Wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans provide the majority of calories for humans and animals, and wheat is the most widely traded grain on the international market. In 2008, 690 million tons of wheat were grown worldwide, with China, the E.U., India, the U.S., and Russia serving as the leading producers.

In 2009, the United Nations estimates, over one billion people were undernourished, and a greater toll is projected.

But prices are rising and the consequences are proliferating. In 2008, prices jumped due to the economic collapse and the growth of biofuels, sparking food riots in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote D'Ivoire, Egypt, Haiti, India, Somalia, and Yemen. This year, prices have jumped with each extreme weather event.

In July and August of 2010, temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit in a Russian heatwave, far above normal. The extent surpassed that of the 2003 European summer heatwave, and over 50,000 excess deaths were attributed to both. The Russian heatwave and water stress inflamed wildfires that claimed close to 40 percent of the projected wheat crop. The government declared a state of emergency in 27 agricultural regions and wheat prices jumped 45 percent on global markets.

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Presented by

Paul Epstein

Paul R. Epstein, M.D., M.P.H., is associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School and is a medical doctor trained in tropical public health. He co-authored the book Changing Planet, Changing Health.

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