Food Security and Climate Change: The True Cost of Carbon

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


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 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.

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.

The effects were immediate. Mozambique, one of the world's poorest nations, experienced riots in August due to higher bread (and fuel) prices. Thirteen people died -- and food subsidies were reinstated.

Also in July and August of 2010, monster monsoons (an extreme version of a natural event) hit Pakistan. The floods displaced 20 million, killed close to 2,000, sickened thousands more, and inundated grain growing areas of the Indus. Climate models project additional intensification of Asian monsoons with continued warming.

In November, 2010, an enormous tropical cyclone caused extensive flooding in Queensland, Australia, killing close to 2,000 (indigenous people being disproportionately affected), and costing an estimated $6 billion. Nearly three-quarters of Queensland, including several wheat-growing regions, was declared a disaster zone. Much of the young, winter wheat crop was severely damaged and grain exports were held up in the Brisbane, the state's largest grain terminal.

Protracted drought in central China has cut winter and summer wheat production there, while reduced snowpack in China's Northern Plain has affected 15.8 million acres. Over one-third of China's wheat production has been lost this year. (Minimal rains in January provided some relief.) In June, also in China, historic flooding claimed more homes and farmland. Meanwhile, extreme cold compounded the drought's impact on wheat yields.

China, with $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, can afford to import grains -- and it has recently begun to do so. But internal disparities have surfaced, even in China: In April, truck and taxi drivers protested rising food and fuel prices.

Unfortunately there are biological consequences to altered weather patterns as well. From Morocco to Northern India, wetter winters have ushered in "yellow rust" fungus, destroying some 60 percent of the region's dry climate wheat. More pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides may be called up to control pests, pathogens, and weeds in a warmer world -- all with their own health consequences.

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Suddenly, food security has reached critical proportions for many. With wheat prices surging 83 percent on the Chicago and Paris exchanges, nations where residents spend half of their income on food (Nigerians spend 73 percent and Vietnamese spend 65 percent) are undergoing mounting social strife.

Price hikes and food insecurity are today contributing to political instability. In April, food riots broke out in Uganda and in Burkina Faso, and rising food, feed, and fuel price have helped catapult the cries for democracy in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

While the fossil fuel industry continues its well-funded, well-orchestrated campaign to keep up a drum beat of doubt on climate change, the impacts are becoming self evident, and nowhere are they more pronounced than with the emergence of food insecurity.

Addressing climate change is everyone's business.

The challenges to inertia continue. In the U.S., a new group, Our Children's Trust, filed a suit in May against the U.S. government for its failure to protect the earth for generations unborn. (The brief was written by James Hansen of NASA and other scientists.) The U.K. has just announced accelerated targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions (50 percent by 2025), by reducing fossil fuel combustion and the felling of forests. There are many measures to help our agricultural systems adapt to the changing climate. But this is a critical time to scale up measures to clean up and transform our energy system, to give the climate a chance at restabilization.

Image: REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds.

With Michael Barron of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and Harvard Medical School; Sophia Wen, a Harvard College graduate; and Sachi Oshima, a Harvard College undergraduate student.