Wild Weather Doesn’t Have to Cause a Malthusian Nightmare

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Almost 1 billion people around the world don’t get enough to eat. Climate change, which is already contributing to food-price increases in poor and prosperous countries alike, promises to make it even harder to feed a growing population.

The world produces enough food to provide its 7 billion people with the roughly 2,700 calories they need daily. But agriculture and food supplies are highly vulnerable to the extreme weather that comes with climate change. As the population grows -- it might reach 10 billion by 2050 -- the world will need to boost farm productivity and solve logistical impediments that make it hard to get food to those who need it.

Consider how weather can affect food prices. The three years in the past two decades when global food costs were highest all occurred after 2007, according to the United Nations. These increases have coincided with droughts in one or more of the world’s major food-producing regions. This year is on pace to be the warmest ever, exceeding records set in 2005 and 2010; the drought in the U.S. Midwest this summer is a big reason corn prices are at record highs.

Numerous studies also suggest that rising temperatures during the spring and summer growing seasons are reducing crop yields. This is on top of the damage done by increasingly frequent droughts, floods and freezes. A study by Oxfam predicts that if current temperature patterns persist, by 2030 corn prices may surge by 177 percent and wheat by 120 percent; rice might double.

Food Catastrophe

The continuing failure of governments to grapple with climate change not only raises the chances of a food catastrophe but also underscores the need for new agricultural policies.

Among the most critical is getting new and more resilient crops into the hands of small farmers, especially in Africa and South Asia. Ideally, this could bring about a second Green Revolution, like that of the 1950s-1970s, when global agricultural productivity took off and food prices declined for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately, the first Green Revolution was followed by a period of neglect: In the years after 1980, many governments, assuming that the worst of the so-called yield gap had been closed, cut funding for agricultural research. Output stagnated in the developing nations of Africa and parts of Asia. Today, African farmers are roughly a seventh as productive as those in the U.S. and only a fifth as productive as China’s.

A bit of the funding slack has been taken up by private charities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made some of its biggest grants to research programs that are developing crops to withstand extreme weather and pack a bigger nutritional punch.

Genetically modified crops must be considered in the mix, consumer wariness in developed countries notwithstanding. If the choice is between malnutrition and starvation, or the consumption of drought-tolerant corn or flood-resistant rice, the decision should be easy. To date, no harm to humans from genetically modified food has been documented and the environmental impact has been negligible. U.K. economist Paul Collier likens GM food to nuclear power: We may feel uneasy about it, but when managed properly, it is safe and better than the alternative.

The farming industry may also need to become more flexible in response to a changing climate: Crops that can no longer grow well in one region need to be replaced by other crops. Governments might need to provide incentives for farmers to cultivate regions where rainfall is increasing and abandon areas subject to recurring drought.

Spiked, Stolen

Food-distribution challenges complicate the picture. In India, for example, a lot of food spoils or is pilfered by corrupt officials before reaching consumers, who in many cases eat less now than in the 1970s. So it is crucial to prosecute criminals and shore up supply chains -- for example by building proper storage facilities. Now, vast quantities of grain are often stockpiled in heaps outdoors, protected by nothing more than tarpaulins, according to Bloomberg News reports.

Governments also should avoid policies that aggravate short-term price increases. In Russia, for instance, after a 2010 heat wave, the government attempted to cap food inflation by banning grain exports. That probably contributed to higher prices in nations such as Egypt, Russia’s largest grain customer, and at home, perhaps because farmers withheld their harvests from the market on concern that prices might not cover their costs.

It is worth noting that food-price inflation in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations is cited as one of the forces behind last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. The same is true of Haiti, where surging prices in 2008 led to the government’s collapse.

U.S. policies also contribute to inflated food costs. Among the worst is the federal mandate that gasoline be blended with ethanol produced mainly from corn, the price of which has soared more than 50 percent since mid-June. As much as 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop -- more than the combined production of Africa and India -- is now devoted to fuel production. And the extra fuel needed to grow and harvest the corn, and turn it into ethanol, leads the U.S. to use more, not less, energy. The U.S. should end the mandate, and also lower or eliminate most subsidies for the agriculture industry.

More than 200 years ago, British economist Thomas Malthus theorized that population growth tends to outstrip food supplies, leading to famine. For two centuries, his dismal prophesy was held at bay as new land was cultivated and productivity increased. Climate change is now altering the equation. But with smarter policies and better farming techniques, the Malthusian nightmare need not come to pass.

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