CLIMATE CHANGE LINKED TO GLOBAL RISE IN FOOD PRICES

by Tyler Moss, Lindsey Valichand Jennifer Wholey
Mar 17, 201

“Food is power.”

Michigan farmer and livestock producer Nate Robinson has known this for years.

Tyler Moss/MEDILL  Illinois corn production in 2009, including locations of ethanol plants across the state.
Tyler Moss/MEDILL
Illinois corn production in 2009, including locations of ethanol plants across the state.

Rising food costs impact every person in every country across the globe, diminishing the ability of millions of families to meet other essential needs. Increasing floods and drought due to global warming is expected to push food prices higher yet—it’s happening already.

Robinson is feeling these effects both at his farm in Cassopolis, Mich., and at the grocery store. He finds himself taking a lower margin, despite the fact that he is forced to raise prices as food production becomes more expensive.

“Unfortunately, the consumer ultimately will pay for this rising cost. Everyone has to eat,” Robinson said. “We go to the grocery store as a family and when we do, we’re a little bit in sticker-shock.”

America is particularly vulnerable to the toll climate change can take on food. 

The U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world, generating more than 10 million of the world’s nearly 23 million bushels of corn in 2000, the most recent statistic from the National Corn Growers Association. Experts say our country must be poised to take on a larger burden of worldwide food supply as crop yields of rice and corn in the tropics drop by an estimated 20 to 40 percent due to climate change. 

The issue

Although the causes for rising food prices are numerous, “global climate destabilization” (as the experts prefer to call it) is playing a significant role.

Lindsey Valich/MEDILL
Lindsey Valich/MEDILL

Many of the world’s agricultural hubs have been hit with massive flooding, in places as far flung as the Midwest and Bangladesh. While some skeptics are convinced this is just part of the Earth’s natural weather cycles, changes marked over time have convinced many that climate change is responsible for the erratic weather.

If that is the case, it will only get worse over time as farmers face unpredictable growing seasons and unexpected weather patterns.

The global ability to feed the growing population is a product of the Green Revolution, said Lewis Ziska, plant psychologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. The Green Revolution is a term used to describe the development of semi-dwarf cereal varieties in the 1950s and 1960s that could grow with less fertilizer and water.

“The result was a doubling or tripling of cereal production,” Ziska said. “Cereals, particularly corn, wheat and rice, are the foods that feed the world.”

There is no question that weather plays a significant role in food production, said Jeff Andresen, geologist and researcher of agricultural meteorology and applied climatology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. 

“Weather, and its longer term climate, are the most important, uncontrollable variables in food production,” said Andresen, who is also the state climatologist for Michigan.

Lindsey Valich/MEDILL
Lindsey Valich/MEDILL

While climate change at present is often thought of in terms of rising global temperatures, it also encompasses erratic weather patterns.

“There is some suggestion that the frequency and magnitude of extremes might increase,” Andresen said. “It is a major fear because these extremes have a disproportionately high impact on food production.”

Iowa, for instance, has experienced two so-called 500-year floods in a period of 15 years—one in 1993 and one in 2008. A 500-year flood is one with a probability of occurring once every 500 years in any given year.

Developed countries have farms thousands of acres large, typically of only one or two varieties of cereal, Ziska said.

“Essentially these farms are monoculture,” he said, “and do not have the biological diversity to adapt well to extreme events.”

Farmers have the ability to adjust to increasing temperatures because it is something they can anticipate from year to year, Andresen said. Changes in extreme weather variability, such as flooding, are much more difficult to handle because major storms are unpredictable.

Lindsey Valich/MEDILL Climate change affects production of the top three crops in the U.S.--corn, soybeans and wheat.
Lindsey Valich/MEDILL
Climate change affects production of the top three crops in the U.S.–corn, soybeans and wheat.

Effects of climate change cover direct impacts and indirect impacts, he said.

Direct impacts consist of mass flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events that are directly linked to the changing climate. Indirect impacts are associated changes that will cause problems further down the line, such as the prevalence of mold because of moist crop stocks, or insects living year round because of higher temperatures.

Direct impacts 

Carbon dioxide is the thermostat for climate change. As levels rise in the atmosphere, so do temperatures, a phenomena documented in hundreds of thousands of years of data from ancient air pockets trapped in ice cores from places such as Antartica and Greenland. At 390 parts per million, carbon dioxide levels are higher now than they have been in more than 600,000 years. 

As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere, erratic weather patterns that disrupt global agriculture are becoming more and more frequent, said Steve Kolmes, director of environmental studies at the University of Portland in Oregon. And as the atmosphere continues to warm, major storms will become even more forceful.

In 2010, Russia banned all exports of grain after millions of acres of their wheat supply was destroyed in a severe drought. Floods in countries such as Bangladesh and Australia are current examples sever weather, Kolmes said. 

“In the last year, the Bangladeshi floods submerged something like a quarter of the country,” he said. “And the cyclone that just went through Australia took out much of the banana crop.”

Kolmes prefers the term “global climactic destabilization” to global warming.

That is because the term global warming can be misleading, as impacts will differ in different parts of the world. For instance, in some places sea level shifts are causing inundation, he said, and even temporary inundation can damage a crop. In other places, increased temperatures can destroy yields as soil loses moisture due to evaporation.

“An example is rice,” Kolmes said. “The yields of rice plants drop badly when the nights stay warmer. The projections are that the tropical crops of rice and corn are going to drop in their yields maybe 20 to 40 percent.”

The logical conclusion is that, as weather makes food production more difficult, prices will rise and global hunger will become an even more serious issue.

“We developed an agriculture based on a very long, stable climate,” he said. “And it appears, at least for the foreseeable future, that we’ve disrupted that appreciably.”

Indirect impacts

One example of an indirect impact of climate destabilization can be seen in Michigan’s fruit trees.

“Public enemy number one for apple growers is the apple cobbler moth,” Andresen said. “It lays eggs on apples. When the egg hatches, the larvae eat through a wormhole in the apple and the apple becomes unsellable.”

Apple cobbler moths are cold blooded, Andresen said, meaning their survival is dependent on temperature. Moths are already surviving through warmer winters. If temperatures warm as projected, there will be extra generations of the moths surviving through the growing season, making the insect much more difficult for farmers to control.

The example illustrates how as the planet continues to heat up, insects will be able to live through the colder seasons, thus having the potential to damage agriculture.

Another indirect impact of climate change is on food security, said Ewen Todd, a retailing expert and professor at Michigan State.

A study by the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen in October 2008 found a link between increased global temperature and outbreaks of salmonella in Europe. As temperature went up, so did the number of cases. Although the specific reason for why this is occurring is currently unknown, Todd said, the correlation is clear.

The issues pose danger here in the U.S. as well.

One of the major food security concerns is the heating of oceans and other bodies of water, he said. Vibrio, a type of bacteria responsible for foodborne illness, grow in warm water.

“Vibrio include cholera, but that’s not a major pathogen for North America,” Todd said. “There is another one called parahaemolyticus that is probably in the water all over the place, but needs high temperatures to grow into large numbers.”

Another food security issue stemming from climate change is the increased prevalence of toxic fungi or mycotoxins as a result of mass flooding, he said. These molds can grow in crops like wheat, cotton and corn.

“The big one is called asatoxin,” Todd said. “People can spray for this, but in some countries that’s not feasible.”

Small amounts of asatoxin will only make people sick when consumed repeatedly over many years, he said. Yet countries such as the U.K. restrict crop imports with even small traces of the toxin from going into circulation. If flooding and droughts produce more mold in Africa’s poorer nations where farmers cannot afford to eradicate it, then those farmers will no longer be able to sell their crops.

“It’s a trade issue,” Todd said. “It means that some of these African countries can’t export, so [the mold] is a barrier.”

In some cases, crops in Africa have been stored under moist conditions ideal for the growth of mold, he said. People who eat these plants get acutely sick, resulting in future problems such as kidney damage.

“You have this extreme situation where people don’t like to eat them,” Todd said. “But they’re under starvation conditions and they have to.”

As the planet heats up and bodies of water continue to evaporate, more moisture hangs in the air, he said. With more moisture in the air, mold growth is more extensive. Erratic weather conditions will stress the plant, making it more susceptible to mold penetration. Mold spores could start to grow under these moist conditions, and during metabolism growing would produce the toxin.

“We think mycotoxins are well established in global climate change,” Todd said. “We think they will be a major factor.”

GMOs

Making agriculture more efficient and productive is one of the best ways to combat the food crisis resulting from climate change, Andresen said. Though they are highly controversial, one of the possible solutions is the continued proliferation of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

“Production efficiency and GMOs – those are two issues linked to one another,” he said. “A lot of the food that is produced never makes it to a table or plate. It gets lost because of substandard harvest practices or pests. That could be improved globally if we were able to prevent some of the losses that regularly occur.”

The genes of crops such as corn and wheat could be modified to be less susceptible to environmental factors like insects, mold or harsh weather conditions. Robinson uses GM cold tolerant seed at his farm in Michigan to extend the growing season.

“I’ve already asked for the cold tolerance seed to come in so I can plant it when it’s a little colder,” he said. “It’ll sit there and wait ’till the temperature gets right and not rot.”

Despite the misgivings of those on the organic and all-natural bandwagon, many farmers do not see GMOs as any sort of mad science, Robinson said. To them, it is just a tool to combat changes in weather. 

Biofuel

Perhaps one of the most controversial potential solutions to combate climate change is biofuel.

While some praise it as the miracle cure to reduce petroleum use—one of the biggest contributors to global climactic destabilization—others argue that biofuels are responsible for just as much greenhouse gas, if not more. 

Research has shown that biofuels burn cleaner than petroleum. But experts worry about the carbon footprint of using agricultural land to produce crops for biofuels. Furthermore, increased production of biofuels means more corn is grown for ethanol instead of for food.

“As countries are trying to do something about their carbon emissions, they’re going to biofuels a lot, and the biofuels are largely being diverted from food crops,” said Steve Kolmes, professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of Portland in Oregon.

So while many farmers continue to grow corn, it just never enters the food chain, Kolmes said. As biofuel use continues and soybeans get turned in biodiesel, corn gets turned into ethanol, food prices will go up and food availability will go down.

“One of the basic principals of economics is that when you increase the demand of something you increase the price,” said Tim Searchinger, research scholar at Princeton University. “It’s the growth in demand rather than a shortage in supply that is the key cause of the food crisis right now.”

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn, and 80 percent of corn produced in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, poultry, and for fish production all over the world, according to a 2009 report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The demand for corn and grain has roughly doubled since 2004, according to Searchinger, who said this is mostly because of an increased demand for biofuels.

“The biofuels have not quite doubled the rate of growth and that’s the single biggest factor keeping things out of balance,” he said.

Because biofuel, unlike weather, is something we can control, Searchinger said we must work to make biofuel production more efficient.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough land to produce biofuels—we do,” said Bruce Dale, chemical engineer at Michigan State University. “It’s more a matter of choosing good systems and getting started on those so that over time those can be more dominant.”

There are right ways and wrong ways to produce biofuels, according to Dale. Double cropping—growing a second crop on the same land after the first crop is harvested—is one option. This may include planting grasses or legumes in the winter following the summer harvest of corn and soybeans. These crops could be used solely for biofuels rather than human food consumption.

“It’s more the efficiency with which we use land,” Dale said. “If we would just start growing double crops on our corn land we would impact the quality of soil, we would reduce green house gases and it would provide a lot of plant material for production in biofuels.”

Another option Dale suggested is making biofuel out of the non-edible parts of the plant, such as the leaves or the cellulose in corn stalks.

“If we can make biofuel by digesting the cellulose in corn stalks, we could have both the food and the fuel crop,” Kolmes said. “So there are technical fixes that might make biofuels have a much more neutral impact on the food supply.”

The issue clearly requires more research – and soon.

“We need to invest in agriculture research and infrastructure,” Ziska said. “And we needed to do it yesterday.”

The future

Projections by climate modelers in the past generally showed that by 2100, things are going to be bad, Kolmes said.

The problem is that everything is happening much faster than the models predicted. Even the most pessimistic of the climate models is being outstripped by the rate of change.

“It’s really hard to get out your crystal ball on this one,” he said.

While certain aspects of the issue might be foggy, the ultimate prescription is not: food shortages will result in higher food prices.

If, in fact, climate change will interfere with global agriculture as predicted, then action needs to be taken quickly. Research and development must become a priority, Andresen said.

Governments need to put aside their developmental differences and realize this is a global issue, Todd said. Climate change will affect people everywhere. Hunger and starvation are tangible concerns. An international strategy is imperative.

When asked what the future holds for climactic destabilization and rising food prices, Kolmes laughed sadly.

“I mean, it snowed in San Francisco,” Kolmes said, an unusual result of increasing evaporation of ocean water. “The rules of predictability were predicated on an atmosphere that we have changed. So instability, I’m afraid, is the new norm.”


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