Climate change and the food supply: it’s not going to get any easier

Corn, wheat, rice and soy tend to suffer in extreme heat

by Kate Lunau

Martin LaBar/Flickr

Kate Lunau is covering the 2012 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, a gathering of some of the world’s finest brains and celebrities of science. On Feb. 16-20, Lunau will bring you a sneak peak of the latest research and findings, posting to Macleans.ca on anything from healthcare and climate change, to food security, and more. Follow Kate on Twitter:@Katelunau , #AAAS, #AAASmtg.

On Saturday morning at the AAAS Meeting in Vancouver, scientists were talking about the implications of a warming world. As part of one symposium called “Make it Fit,” looking at how to support a decent standard of living for our planet’s growing population, I caught a talk from economist Michael Hanemann about how water demands will shift due to climate change. Already, he said, there are 2.8 million deaths per year due to contaminated water. But scarcity isn’t the main problem; access is, and that requires plumbing to bring the water to people, which can be expensive.

Climate change is expected to cause “more intense episodes” of precipitation, Hanemann noted, which will require better ways to store the water when it falls, but that costs even more money. In California, he said, most precipitation happens in the winter, but three-quarters of water use happens in the summertime; snow is an important way to store it through winter months, saving about one-third of precipitation for use later on. But as the climate warms, and rain falls instead of snow, that will change—not just in California, but in Canada too, of course.

After that came a fascinating briefing from four experts on the emerging risks to the global food system. Wolfram Schlenkerpointed out that corn, wheat, rice and soy make up 75 per cent of our calories, but these crops tend to suffer in extreme heat above 30C. Thanks to modern farming methods, yields have increased threefold over the last fifty years, he said—but their sensitivity to heat remains about the same. As climate change continues, that will have some serious implications for our food supply, as will changing lifestyles in developing countries and the growing number of people consuming higher-calorie diets and more red meat, which will also squeeze the food supply. Any climate change, he said, “will have a really significant impact worldwide.”

Of those four foods that make up three-quarters of our diet—corn, wheat, rice and soy—a whopping 23 per cent of them are produced in the U.S., three times bigger than Saudi Arabia’s oil production, Schlenker said. The use of corn in ethanol production creates a “massive impact on demand,” he continued. “This is not necessarily a good thing considering the impact on world food prices.” A debate of sorts broke out between Schlenker and other panel participants on this point. Roger Beachy agreed there was reason for concern about using a food source for ethanol production, and said he “would like to see it otherwise,” but also pointed out that it gives farmers more choice, and contributes to economic stability. But with a few factors constricting the food supply, Schlenker said, “who’s going to suffer is the consumer.”




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Climate change and the food supply: it’s not going to get any easier

  1. This is all, of course, speculation. We currently have no firm idea of what conditions climate change may bring.

    Unfortunately exercises in conjecture like the above often play into the hands of deniers, and lend to (not altogether unfounded) accusations of fear-mongering.

    •  We are already seeing increase incidences of flooding and drought. We should utilize our land with crops that are most resistant to such extreme variations in weather.

      • We definitely should use crops that are resistant to such extreme variations in weather.
        Unfortunately we still aren’t certain as to what though changes could be.

        As to recent incidences of flooding and drought, we can’t be sure if those were due to Climate Change yet or to other factors like the El Nino/La Nina cycle.

        • It’s not necessarily one or the other. Nowadays, global warming is likely to have an effect on most weather. So it may not cause a flood but it probably will make the flood worse than it would be if global warming had not happened.

          •  It is a slow process to touch it, it is indeed making the global environmental situation worse and worse, maybe decades time.

    • Actually, we have reasonably firm ideas.. not as to the specifics, of course, but as to the general range — and those suggest that our food supplies are vulnerable.

  2. Regardless of the cause of strain on food supply it remains fool hardy to continue to use valuable  cropland for bio-fuel production.

  3. Climate change influences human behaviour in their lifestyles, consumption patterns and migratory patterns. As a cyclic effect this influenced a host of other things like urbanization, industrialization, wars, colonization and the resultant destruction of societies: all in the name of development and civilization in an unsustainable way. The last three centuries of unsustainable development globally snowballed to what is to become now ‘the climate change’ threatening mankind and the planet.

  4. This climate change BS is an excuse for higher taxes to fund the pet projects of those politicians who have been duped by the lies. The truth deniers want more control of the citizenry. More laws, more taxes, less freedom, thats what the truth deniers are about. They want to control every facet of your life people. Wake up before it’s too late. Their green agenda is nothing more than a cover for their socialist fantasies. Their religion is socialism. They think they can create heaven on earth after they subjugate the citizens. Don’t be conned by their lies. The climate has been changing long before our industrial society ever existed and it will continue to change. If these truth deniers want to toss away their i-phones, macbooks, i-pads and all the other luxuries that our western industrial society has provided them, let them fill their boots, live in caves and starve in the gloom but don’t let them destroy our lives as well.

      • Yeah Lenny,
        while David’s comment was indeed pretty loopy, that infographic you linked to as a riposte was just as unhinged.
        I guess the moral here is that two different ideological trees can grow the same type of nut.

        • No kidding, Fancy.  The scenario on the right side of that image is completely bonkers!  
          What’s next?   Are they going to suggest tobacco companies paid experts to tell us tobacco was safe, cfc producers paid experts to tell us they weren’t causing a whole in the ozone, or that asbestos producers paid experts to tell us how safe asbestos is?!  LOL

  5. can you afford not to act ? what will your grandchildren say about your complacency  in 50 years?  lets find some sustainalbe solutions to the likely challenges that lie ahead

  6. It’s truly impossible to predict the weather. Over the next century, swamp grass from Virginia could sprout up in Nunuvut, due to the tides, as well as global warming.

    We shouldn’t have an environmental policy based on a Henny-Penny view that the sky is falling. Rather, we should plant trees and gardens because we think that they are beautiful. 

    We can’t always change or predict the weather, but maybe we can adapt to it if we change our perception of it. 

    • Weather != Climate

      I can’t predict how quickly a car will hit you if you lie down in the freeway.
      I can predict you’ll be hit.

  7. Now what to do with the hundreds of scientists who don’t agree with this climate change “theory”.  The climate is always changing.  A much more accepted theory is that the sun’s cycle of solar flares is responsible for climate activity on earth.  Good luck with controlling that fiery orb!!  Many agree that the earth has been in a 15 year “cooling” period (hence the quick adaptation from “Global Warming to the catch-all “Climate Change”).  Adaptation has always been the first law of survival — I don’t need a fear-mongering, agenda driven conference in Vancouver (famous for banning everything) to figure that out.

      • I love how a link to a propaganda site run by the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland  (i.e. the marketing guy for the Climate Change activists at UQ), who isn’t a scientist, suddenly becomes the equivalent of “well debunked”.

        I mean, why have science at all when we can just go to a one-man authority on the subject?  So much easier than all that hard number stuff. 

        • Keep pouring that poison into that well. I’m sure you’ll have an effect with the kool-aid drinkers.

          People who actually want to know truth will look at the arguments and evidence presented therein.

          • Much as I laud your newfound enthusiasm for objective truth, I expect that “people who actually want to know truth” will look at the arguments and evidence from all knowledgeable sources, rather than a single source with an axe to grind who simplistically dismisses the others as “myths”.  As Webbjan02 correctly pointed out, there are several knowledgeable points of view on the topic.  

          • Haven’t read a word of what’s on the site, have you?

          • Ah Thwim.

            Actually I have read much of the site. I see that it attempts to make a case rationally, which is good. I also see that it seeks to make a case in order to push a cause rather than as a matter of objective inquiry – in other words, it provides one side of the argument only. A scientist does not rely on one side of the argument alone any more than a jury does….unless, of course, they are prejudiced. Which, I fear, you quite possibly are.

            For a brief rejoinder, in words better than mine, addressing the fact that this issue has more than one valid viewpoint, that we should not rush to judgement, and that those who disagree with you are not necessarily ignoramuses, I refer you to this piece in the WSJ.

            It is a hallmark of rationality to be open to opposing points of view. I recommend you try it.

          • I can tell you right now that piece in the WSJ is shoddy science at best, since it misrepresents the IPCC’s conclusions, which present temperature increase as a range, not as a straight line.

            Ergo, they’re misrepresenting one of the basic components of what they claim is falsified.

          • “I can tell you right now that piece in the WSJ is shoddy science at best, since it misrepresents the IPCC’s conclusions, which present temperature increase as a range, not as a straight line.”

            You haven’t read those IPCC reports, have you?

            For example, page 336 of the 1990 report shows the predicted global temperature increase.  The figures show “best estimate value” only…..which are, in every plot, a straight, positive-slope line with the only variation being for cases in which drastic cuts in emissions are incorporated into the model.

            It’s one thing to disagree with world-class scientists on matters of science, in fact it’s perfectly reasonable to do so.   It’s another thing to label their opinions a “myth” or “ignorant of science”, as you’ve managed to do.  I can tell which party looks ignorant in that scenario, and it’s not Claude Allegre.

        • That’s right, he isn’t a climate scientist.  Which is why he restricts he commentary to what is published in the literature by scientists and provides extensive references to it, rather than making completely unsubstantiated assertions like “webbjan02″ above(who, having provided nothing but assertion requires no debunking.)

          • I think this piece in the WSJ says what I’m trying to say, only better.

  8. Not to worry — according to most of the Republican contenders for president of the U.S. climate change is an unproven theory —

    • Which is why they won’t get in.

  9. If the planet has not been warming for the last 15 years, which has been universally admitted by even the most ardent climate doomsayers, then you should put a lid on garbage articles like this one that purport to be based on some smidgeon of truth, when in fact they’re based on nothing but fantasy.

        • A pretty but not particularly meaningful picture.  Hansen was projecting suface temperature, while the author of your graph chose to compare his projection to tropospheric temperature.  He also chose the record with the worst history of problems.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UAH_satellite_temperature_dataset#Corrections_made
          Why do you think he did that?

          I know you’re not really interested in comparing projections to measurements, but others might be:
          http://www.skepticalscience.com/Hansen-1988-prediction-advanced.htm
          http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/02/2011-updates-to-model-data-comparisons/#bib_3

          Unfortunately the only “historical perspective” provided by your link is for a single location in Greenland (Greenland constitutes less than 0.5% of the earth’s surface, and that data doesn’t even cover its entirety).  The graph I provided obviously represents global temperature anomalies.
          http://www.skepticalscience.com/still-going-down-the-up-escalator.html

          • The surface temperature graph is no different. Tropospheric temperature is preferred because it is easier to measure. You’re wrong that the record is incorrect – the reality is that there are far more complexities and errors when measuring surface temperature data.

            Same with Greenland – the rest of the world is no different. Greenland is a great source because there are so many measurements to be had, dating back thousands of years.

            You’re trying to insinuate that for some reason Greenland is completely out of sync with the rest of the world, and that surface temperatures are out of sync with tropospheric temperatures. The reality is that the trend is the same, as to be expected.

            You can make all the ridiculous excuses you like, but they don’t mask the fact that the projections were wildly wrong. You’d have a silly excuse no matter what the results were – but that is not how science is done. When scientific predictions are wrong, then the proper course of action is to accept the results and rethink the hypothesis.

          • “The surface temperature graph is no different. Tropospheric temperature is preferred because it is easier to measure.”

            No, no and no. 

            “You’re wrong that the record is incorrect – the reality is that there
            are far more complexities and errors when measuring ”

            No.  Satellite measurements are much more fraught and have clearly had more problems(and particularly UAH) as documented in my link above, whereas the surface record has held up to tremendous scrutiny.  That’s not particularly relevant though – because, as I said, whether through dishonesty of ignorance the author of your graph compared Hansen’s projection of surface temperatures with a record of tropospheric temperatures.

            “You’re trying to insinuate that for some reason Greenland is completely
            out of sync with the rest of the world, and that surface temperatures
            are out of sync with tropospheric temperatures. The reality is that the
            trend is the same, as to be expected.”

            I’m not insinuating anything – I’m stating quite clearly that data from a single temperature proxy in one location in Greenland isn’t even remotely a proxy for global temperatures.  Nor is it neccessary to use it as such.  There are certainly other temperature proxies available in other parts of the world that have been used in a whole number of studies:

            http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:2000_Year_Temperature_Comparison.png&oldid=63524831

            And indeed temperatures can and do show different trends in different locations.

            “You can make all the ridiculous excuses you like, but they don’t mask the fact that the projections were wildly wrong.”

            No.   You really need to read the link:
            http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/02/2011-updates-to-model-data-comparisons/#bib_3

          • Your realclimate links, which is a site that is controlled by the very same people promoting and hyping global warming, shows the same. It’s a site created by a small group of warming-promoting scientists to promote their own work. They do a bang-up job of spinning numbers and making excuses, as you would expect, but it’s easy to see:

            I repeat: “You can make all the ridiculous excuses you like, but they don’t mask the fact that the projections were wildly wrong.”

            Do you even realize just how useless a hindcast is for a computer model? They create models that are based on past climate patterns, they tune them to match the past, and then they marvel at how well they model the past. No shit, sherlock! That doesn’t show accuracy, that shows they know how to tweak the dials to get the line they’re looking for. Then of course, you can see that even the short ten-year period since 2000 they’ve been wildly off the mark, and this is on their own propaganda site! Give it a few more years for the real data to fall out of their giant error bars (yeah, look at the size of those error bars – that’s called covering your ass for as long as possible). You’ve totally bought into the scam. I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell ya.

          • You can keep repeating that they’re “wildly wrong”, but it will still be nonsense.   In 1984 Hansen projected +/- .28 C  of warming per decade, the IPCC has projected +/-0.2Cdec. and deniers told us there would be no warming, or indeed that it would cool,  while indeed it has warmed +/-0.18C/dec.  from 1984 to the present.

            “Your realclimate links, which is a site that is controlled by the very same people promoting and hyping global warming…”

            You mean scientists, who are expert in the field and publish their work in journals read by their fellow scientists worldwide.  
            But listen, I know you have difficulty assessing credibility – that’s why you reference internuts who’ve with no expertise who’ve never published anything.

            ” They create models that are based on past climate patterns ”

            Climate models are based on physics.

            “they tune them to match the past”

            They’re tested against the past.

            “You’ve totally bought into the scam.”

            Right.  The conspiracy to  ______  being perpetrated by the world’s climate scientists, major scientific bodies, scientific journals etc., along with the cooperation of the climate which has continued to warm, the arctic which has continued to melt, the flora and fauna which has continued to creep northward, etc, .

            Or did you mean that you and some internuts are smarter and know more about climate than climate scientists?

          • “deniers told us there would be no warming, or indeed that it would cool”

            Your comment went off the rails from there. Firstly, the people you insultingly call “deniers” are willing to admit that the earth warms and cools for a whole host of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with CO2. Secondly, the earth has not warmed for 15 years. Everybody admits that, even your favourite cabal of warming-propagandists at realclimate. I’ve even shown you a page summarizing some of the trends in climate on different historical timescales, and then you spout off a completely absurd statement in response, “deniers told us there would be no warming, or indeed that it would cool”, completely ignoring what I posted just a couple comments back.

            “They’re tested against the past.”

            That’s a pretty funny statement. What a laugh. YOu can’t test something against the past! The whole point of the scientific method is to make a prediction and then test it with observations and experimentation, not to keep on changing your numbers so that it’s not contradicted by the past. I could make a climate model with inputs being the number of bananas cultivated in South America and make the model match the past historical temperature records. That’s not science! The whole point of the climate models is to incorporate the data observed from the past! You can’t test your inputs against your inputs.

            Your whole post is just a smorgasbord of ridiculous statements.

            So you’ve decided to invent a new word, “internut”. Well, I suppose I might have encountered one of those, and his name is Lenny. I have a hard time understanding why lunatics like you turn into such religious obsessive crusaders, spouting absolute nonsense as if it has some value. Why not just argue the moon is made of green cheese? Are you one of those guys holding “the end of the world is nigh” signs on street corners?

          • “Firstly, the people you insultingly call “deniers” are willing to
            admit that the earth warms and cools for a whole host of reasons”

            Of course they do.   And they tell us “there’s not really warming, it’s just the urban heat island effect!”  “It’s not really warming, the scientists are just fudging the data!”  It’s not really warming, look its snowing!”.   “OK it’s warming, but it’s must be natural cuz the earth has naturally warmed before!”

            “Secondly, the earth has not warmed for 15 years.”

            Is of course, nonsense.  Even with your cherry-picked time period the upward trend continues:
            http://www.woodfortrees.org/plot/wti/from:1997/to:2011/plot/wti/from:1997/to:2011/trend

            “That’s a pretty funny statement.”

            Yeah, har har.  Models are based on physics not on inputs of past climate trends.  Seriously, you could learn these things pretty easily if you read the science, rather than  your fellow internuts.

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