Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices.

Food priceEarlier this month I discussed how, “Extreme weather events help drive food prices to record highs.”  Since then I had lunch with one of the world’s foremost authorities on food insecurity, Lester Brown, who has a terrific new book out, World on the Edge, that I will blog on later.

I have been concerned about food security for a while (see links below).  But Brown’s work has persuaded me that genuinely destabilizing food insecurity may occur as soon as this decade — assuming 1 billion undernourished people isn’t already a crisis.  So I’ve decided to add a new category, “food insecurity,” to ClimateProgress and will be doing a series of posts in the coming weeks and months.

The Washington Post had a pretty good piece on the subject Saturday, which I’ll excerpt below.  Significantly, they note, “Russia has banned grain exports until the end of the 2011 harvest.”

As Brown explained to me, when the real food instability comes — if, for instance, the U.S. or Chinese breadbasket gets hit with the type of 1000-year 100-year heat wave Russia just did — then the big grain producers will ban exports, to make sure their people are fed.  In this scenario, if you don’t have your own food supplies or an important export item to barter — particularly oil — your country is going to have big, big problems feeding its people.

Here’s more from the piece, a glimpse of the shape of things to come:

In Bangladesh, rice prices jumped 8 percent in December. In India, the price of onions soared 80 percent in just one week.

“Now everyone is having fears of going back to the levels of 2007-08,” said Sudakshina Unnikrishnan, a Barclays Capital commodities analyst.

Rising food prices may have been an ingredient in the instability in Tunisia that drove that country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, from office Thursday. The demonstrations and riots against Ben Ali were sparked in December by a license dispute between police and a fruit-and-vegetable vendor, who set himself on fire in protest. Earlier this week, one of the measures Ben Ali used in a futile bid to cling to power was to cut prices for sugar, cooking oil and other commodities.

But other countries, big and small, are struggling to deal with rising inflation rates. China this month boosted interest rates in an effort to cool its economy and calm inflation, which has been particularly strong for food.

In Armenia, hit by adverse weather, “the contraction of agricultural output and a rise in imported wheat prices have translated into higher food prices,” the International Monetary Fund said last month. “Comprising nearly half of the weight of the consumer price index, higher food prices have pushed annual inflation over 9 percent in recent months.”

Some of the factors feeding the rise in food prices — floods in Australia, last summer’s drought in Russia, and bad weather in South America are temporary, says Unnikrishnan. But, she adds, “if you’re looking at next year or a few years out, the trading range has shifted higher on emerging market demand, lower inventories and biofuel policies that are adding a new layer of demand onto the market.”

Sadly, the extreme weather we are seeing is not a “temporary” phenomenon.  The country’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, recently explained:

Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.

It’s likely half the years this decade will be hotter and more extreme than 2010 — and most of the years in the next decade.

Sure, it’s unlucky that some of the extreme weather hit major food-producing regions, but as weather gets more and more extreme, we’re just playing Russian roulette.  Sooner or later, as Brown says, the extreme weather is going to hit a key U.S. or Chinese food-producing region.

Equally worrisome is that many countries, including our own, continue to pursue inane biofuel policies based on food crops that eat up increasingly scarce arable land and potable water.  That cannot be sustained.

Finally, and it’s a bit surprising the article doesn’t mention this, oil is at $90 a barrel again even though the global economy isn’t particularly strong.  We are peaking in conventional oil production (see “Peak oil production coming sooner than expected” and World’s top energy economist warns: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us”).  Since the agricultural sector is quite dependent on oil, this important input to food production and delivery is poised to help push food prices higher whenever the economy picks up steam — unless of course, high food and commodity prices stall a recovery.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, warns that long-term food trends are worrisome, especially for soybeans. He notes that in 1995 China produced the same amount of soybeans it consumed, but since then production has stayed the same and consumption has jumped fivefold.

World demand for soy, used largely as an ingredient in livestock feed, is rising at a rate of more than 6 percent a year, Brown says, but crop yields are fairly constant. As a result, he said, the amount of land devoted to growing soy has risen at an unsustainable rate. More land in the United States is devoted to growing soy than to wheat, he said. In Brazil, more land is used for soybeans than for all grains combined.

Above all, Brown said, water shortages and climate change will constrain output. Every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent, he said.

That will take some time, however. For the moment, analysts are looking more closely at seasonal factors.

Kudos to the Post for quoting Brown.  But I think they missed his point.

Climate change is already contributing to the extreme weather (and local water shortages) that are helping to drive up food prices.  Again, as ClimateWire and SciAm explained,”world food prices hit a record high in December thanks to crop failures from a series of extreme weather events around the world“:

FAO attributes the upswing in prices to factors including the crop failures caused by a string of extreme weather events and high crop demands from an ever-increased global population. Many experts have linked the series of floods and fires with climate change.

“We can never tell if any particular weather event is impacted by climate change, but I can say there is every expectation we will see more of these weather events in the future and that these events certainly have an impact,” said Jerry Nelson, a senior research fellow coordinating climate change work at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Wheat, for example, bludgeoned by Russia’s wildfires, the heat waves in Australia and flooding in Pakistan, saw massive price surges last fall.

“The record rise in food prices is a grave reminder that until we act on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change, we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife’s edge of disaster,” said Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America, in a statement.

We have dawdled for so long that we are stuck with a fair amount of climate change for the next couple of decades that will likely drive extreme food insecurity.  But if we don’t act soon, the situation is likely to become catastrophic within a few decades (see “Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path“).  And we all know who suffers first:

International agencies are worried about the effect of higher food prices on the world’s poorest people.

“We are really concerned about the impact of rising food prices on the most vulnerable. They are the ones who tend to be most hit,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank managing director and former Nigerian finance minister. “You saw what happened in 2008 and 2009 . . . 64 million-plus people were thrown into poverty.”

Here is one of Brown’s charts:

Those who think that the serious impacts of climate change on the world economy and U.S. national security are decades away are simply not paying attention.

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29 Responses to Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices.

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    No mention of the reduced productivity of the oceans. Yes you have covered it before.

    No mention of the changing definition of crude oil.

    No mention of impending fertilizer shortages. True nitrogen fertilisers can be made from oil, but not phosphates.

    With so much of the population in denial about the changes that are already happening, how are we supposed to adapt to the future. Planting doomed crops is a sure way to speed the process of decline. Farmers need to re-asses what crops to plant, but people they trust are telling then it is a natural cycle.

    Time to start the vegie garden, with water from the washing machine.

    Forget ten years, we are in for some nasty price rises this year.

  2. matt says:

    I agree completely re the vegie garden but I’d avoid using grey water for plants you plan to eat.

  3. Mike#22 says:

    (free download of book here: but I will buy a few copies to hand out)

  4. John McCormick says:

    I struggle against the cloudy days, absent bees and white flies in my 14 by 24 veggie garden. Every string bean is a victory. Maybe my green thumb is infected. But, I see the crop disasters limited to corn, wheat and rice. Not enough room in my garden for those essentials.

    And, Doomsayer makes a strong point: “Farmers need to re-asses what crops to plant, but people they trust are telling them it is a natural cycle.”

    Contract farmers and those that borrow heavily from banks are told what they will plant and how they will plant that crop.

    When I worked on pesticide control legislation it was well known that farmers trying to get a bank loan were told ‘no go’ if the borrower was intent on using integrated pest management farming. Scheduled spraying was the order.

    John McCormick

  5. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Agricultural disruptions has always been the severest of AGW threats to society. Changes like sea level rises are more “cinematic” or dramatic or something and get emphasized in the media, but wide spread persistent famines are the crux.

  6. with no handlebars says:

    A frustrating variable trying to cost AGW is, is research generally incremental or sticky? There is a paper coming out this fall, which means in 2 yrs, attempting to measure whether fugitive emissions make natural gas extraction and transport less or more c-intensive than oil. Will this paper advance the state of knowledge decisively or incrementally? Permafrost might delay outgassing if more precipitation…do we have to wait for melted arctic ocean observation to get 2030s weather forecasts, or will models improve? And what of CO2 outgassing R+D?
    Two scenarios are: R+D is linear, and fat tails worst-case scenarios suggest a higher carbon price (paper cited previous and future research). Or, we can set effective experiments that hilight Rumsfelds’s known and unknown epistemology, and should wait for R+D before methane pipelines or a certain type of CCS expanded…in any event there are fat tails in some solutions. Is fake meat dual use? Is it wise to breed weeds and gmo lichens?

  7. Ed Hummel says:

    When I give my talks on climate change and what we can expect to see happen here in central Maine, people always ask me what we’ll notice first that will be obvious (I’ve usually already talked about all the subtle changes that have already occurred over the last 30 years). Without hesitation, I always say food prices and shortages and I inevitably get blank stares and then even some disagreement. I really don’t think people appreciate just how precarious our whole food situation in the world is since they’ve been engulfed by decades of propaganda from government, academia, econmists, and the food industry that the hunger problem has been solved because of technology and that any problems that do occur around the world are due exclusively to global and national politics.

    Being an organic garderner for 40 years has taught me that it’s all an illusion. People generally just don’t appreciate how important weather conditions are to having a successful crop as well as determining which crops will flourish in any particular season. And as a still practicing meterologist, I can’t remember global circulation patterns being as screwed up as they’ve been this past year (actually the past few years, but 2010 has really been screwy!). And even though central Maine hasn’t seen anything to compare with Russia, Pakistan, Australia, and Brazil, we have definitely seen some pretty impressive extremes of sustained heat, extreme rain and extreme drought, though hardly anything that could be called “normal” for any length of time. Area farmers and gardeners have definitely noticed the difference from what they have expected in the past, and the irregularity of weather phenomena has contributed to the dire situation that most Maine dairy farmers find themselves in today. I would expect such things are even more pronounced in other parts of the country with even more important agricultural areas, and I would expect that its just a matter of how soon we see a major disaster, such as the floods of 1993 across the Mississippi watershed, occur over a large part of the US.

    It’s inevitable with the messed up atmostpheric circulation patterns that are occurring and which I expect to continue to occur and become more extreme over the next few years as the warming oceans at atmosphere continue “doing their thing”. Jim Hansen expects 2012 to be a doozy because of a confluence of factors, so I would expect we won’t have to wait long to have our own Russia or Australia in the good ole’ USA. Of course, the rest of the world will continue seeing their own weather disasters, so it really doesn’t look good for the world food situation in the near future. Historically, bad food situations have always led to unstable governments and societies, revolutions, and wars, not to mention mass migrations that also fuel these things. So, I look for food to be the first real global disasters related to a changing climate and I expect it to happen very soon.

  8. dp says:

    but… smoked brisket… is so tasty ;-(

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Isaac Asimov – How to Save Civilization

  10. Prokaryotes says:


    Isaac Asimov :”I have written an article on the Green House effect. It was a year-end article. They wanted me to pick out the most important scientific event of 1988. And I really thought that the most important scientific event of 1988 would only be recognized some time in the future. When you have a little perspective,. But I thought that the most interesting scientific event of 1988 was the way everyone started speaking about the GreenHouse effect just because there was a hot summer and a drought.

    So I explained what was meant by the Green House effect, and I also explained that not only were we constantly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because we’re burning fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas, so that the content of the atmosphere, as far as carbon dioxide is concerned, has been going up steadily. Not very rapidly, but steadily ever since. And it’s continuing to do so. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now 50% higher than it was in 1900. It’s still only a little over 300 (pause) .035%. Which is not enough to bother us as far as breathing is concerned, but it’s enough to trap the infrared waves that Earth reflects into space and to raise the temperature of the earth slightly. The temperature will keep on going up. And not only are we piling in more and more CO2 in the atmosphere, but we’re chopping down the forests of the Earth at a great rate. And the forests themselves are the most efficient consumers of CO2 that there are on Earth. Anything that substitutes for the forests, like, let us say, grain fields or grass lands, are not going to consume CO2 as efficiently. And if we replace them with desert, which is most likely, it won’t absorb the CO2 at all. So that, in a sense, we are contributing
    to the Green House effect in two ways: by, by pushing the output of CO2 and inhibiting the input, so to speak.

    I say, therefore when Brazil begins to cut down the rain forests of the Amazon, not only is it destroying a habitat for vast numbers of plant and animal life, which could be of great use to us. There are perhaps pharmacological products we know nothing about that are produced
    by these forms of life, that if we knew about could advance the art of pharmacology and the practice of medicine, enormously. And we’ll never find out, we’re going to drive them to extinction. We’re going to destroy the ground, because the soil of a rain forest isn’t very good. When you chop it down it doesn’t make for good farming, what it makes
    for is good deserts. And, finally, we’re going to cut down the absorbing of CO2 and on producing oxygen. So we are actually tempering with the climate of the Earth and with the very atmosphere that we breathe. So that under those circumstances it is useless for Brazil
    to say that she can do what she wants with her own. That the rain forest belongs to her and that if she wants to cut them down, she can. The rain forest doesn’t belong to her, it belongs to humanity. She is merely the custodian of the rain forest.

    I said that in the course of my article, and I got a letter in which a young man said: Who gave the United States the right to tell Brazil what to do? What if Brazil says to us that we produce far more carbon dioxide than any other nation, because we have more automobiles, more motors, we have more industry and we are polluting the atmosphere far more in a per capita basis than anyone else on Earth, and therefore why shouldn’t they have the right to tell us to cut down on our industry, to clean up our pollution instead of telling them not to cut down their forests. And I answered and said: You make a very good point, but now look through my article, and see where I said it was the United States who is supposed to make these decisions. I didn’t say anywhere that it was the American right to police the world or to tell them what to do. And, in fact, that gets to the nub of the whole point.

    That we are facing problems that transcend nations. That when we talk about the GreenHouse effect, we’re talking about something that effects not just the United States, not just Brazil. That effects the entire Earth, for the worse.

    If the population goes up to the point where we destroy the resources of the Earth, it doesn’t matter which nation is most populous, we all get it in the neck. If we have a nuclear war that produces a nuclear winter, or a fall out that kills people everywhere, it doesn’t matter who started the war, it doesn’t matter at whom the nuclear bombs were aimed, we’ll all get it. You can go through the entire list of dangers that faces humanity, and the very point of the whole thing is that they face humanity, and not any one section of it. And, therefore, I might say in passing, that this should be a peculiar interest to Humanists. I have always thought that the reason we’re called Humanists is that we’re involved with human beings as opposed to the supernatural, the existence of which is dubious, at best. But, if we are going to be interested in and involved with human beings, then I fail to see anything in the name that distinguishes between one set of human beings and another set. We are all human beings. If there is one thing that is biologically certain about the human species is that it is a human species. One species. The similarities among us are enormous. The differences are trivial. That it is criminal for all of Earth now, now not to be Humanists. Because now when all human beings are facing the same problems. And these problems are life and death problems, they
    go to the root of the viability of the planet itself. And in order to solve these problems, in order to make sure, not just that our progeny will be prosperous, that our progeny will be peaceful, but that our progeny will live. To go to the solution of these problems, we cannot expect that this will be done by individual nations. The only way we can solve a problem is by a human solution, a totally human solution, an international solution, a cooperative solution.

    It is important that the world get together and be sufficiently a unit to face the problems which attack us as a unit. The problems with the ocean, with the atmosphere, with the soil, with the population, with pollution, with anything you want to aim, do not distinguish among us. How, then, can we distinguish among ourselves? There must be some way of getting together. And of deciding not that the United States will tell Brazil what to do, not what Brazil will tell the United States what to do, but what the people of the Earth will tell themselves they must do. We have no difficulty applying this principle to the United States itself. We don’t say that New York hasn’t got the right to tell California what to do, that California hasn’t got the right to tell Florida what to do. When it comes to international trade, when it comes to any facet of national life that it rises above the parochial needs of cities and states, the federal government tells all the states what to do, and the federal government can do it because it consists of representatives from all the states. Well, what we need is some sort of federal world government, and the only problem is how we manage to do that.”

  11. Randy Turner says:

    How much of a role do expected higher food prices play in corporate agribusiness and their lobby not fighting for sound climate change policies? After all, weather anomalies in other countries cause increased prices for big ag’s crops on the world market. If corporate farmers have insurance against crop failure, then the risks of climate change for them are minimal, compared to the potential benefit when other countries crops fail. Since many third world farmers may not be able to afford insurance against crop failure, then if my assumption holds true, it is obvious who stands to benefit by corporate agriculture staying on the sidelines in the climate policy world.

  12. fj3 says:

    Yay Lester Brown! Oops, excuse me.

  13. @ Ed #7: Well said. I’m up in Aroostook (where we’ve been getting a lot less snow than the rest of the state, in part because the Hudson Bay hasn’t been freezing the way it used to) and I’m thinking a lot like you. Take a look at my last post on the global food crisis. I’d really like to interview you for my blog and talk about some networking strategies for climate security in Maine. You can email me through my blog if you’re interested.

    I’m extremely concerned that Mainers just elected a pack of climate zombies to run our state. We need to start serious local planning in accordance with the excellent 2010 climate adaptation plan developed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). But the Legislature is just sitting on the climate adaptation report (I have it from an insider that most of them have probably never even read the report, or have a clue about the science), and it looks like our new Governor just tapped a real estate developer to run the DEP!

    Media coverage on the issue is also terrible, which I imagine is why I’m starting this discussion with you on a ClimateProgress thread, and not on an article in the Bangor Daily. ClimateProgress is my go-to source for reliable analysis of climate science and politics. If only we had public interest clarification like this coming out of the University of Maine, which based its 2009 climate change projections for the 2010 Maine DEP climate adaptation report on IPCC 2007!

    Now add in peak oil. I’m so glad to see Joe bring it into the discussion. I just can’t believe that we are continuing to pump so much oil into the production of junk food and animal products (among other indulgences the grandkids will shake their heads at). No offense against Maine’s dairy farmers, but we need to start thinking about how we are going to ration our fuel and our commodities just to keep people fed the basics, and how we are going to transition our state to a low-input, post-petroleum system of agriculture ASAP. I live in farm country, I watch the heavy equipment drive by every day during the growing and harvest seasons, and I think I have a pretty good idea how vulnerable our food system is to the liquid fuels contraction that is coming. Combine that with climate change impacts and a credit crisis, and we are looking at a hard row to hoe.

    Over the course of this year, I’m going to be blogging on Thursdays about a resilient and low-input healthcare, microfarm and agroforestry system for Aroostook County, in the context of contraction and convergence at the global level and long-term economic degrowth in the U.S. and Maine. I hope you’ll consider stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  14. Wit's End says:

    “High concentrations of the air pollutant ozone are frequently measured over farmland regions in many parts of the world. Laboratory and field studies show that ozone can significantly lower crop yields and it is thought that current ozone pollution levels are high enough in parts of the U.S. to decrease production of some food crops. It is likely that these effects will become even more severe if atmospheric background ozone levels increase in the future, which they are predicted to do….

    …Our analysis suggests that the cost to the farmers globally is substantial and supports other studies that calculate an economic loss to the world farming community of more than $10 billion annually….”

    Ozone also increases the damage done by insects, disease, fungus and extreme weather…say goodbye to Florida orange juice…

  15. Michael Tucker says:

    Yesterday Jordan and Libya were both in the news regarding the food unrest they are experiencing. Today other nations are joining the list. Egypt and Bulgaria are both concerned about the possibility of food riots. Inflation is plaguing many nations, especially food and fuel inflation, and if the population is spending about 50% or more of per capita income on food you will see unrest.

    With ever increasing demand from ever increasing population, fuel and food struggle to keep up. A glitch in supply causes fear and uncertainty in the market and that is why prices will remain volatile for both food and fuel; it is the new normal.

    The near 10% yearly growth in the Chinese economy is keeping fuel costs high. GM sold more cars to China last year than to the US. Joe is right, if the US were to begin to build houses at the rate we were before the crash the price per barrel would be well above $100.

    Unstable and unpredictable climate is exactly what we don’t need. Farmers need some kind of reasonable predictability in the climate if they are to keep up with world demand. A chaotic climate will only compound the problems we face and, if we continue as before, will make solving them impossible.

  16. ken levenson says:

    I’m sure it’s in the works but Hansen’s new (draft)paper forcefully making the case for BAU 3 meter ocean rise this century is eye popping reading – hope you have a post soon. Someone should really figure out how to do a big publicity splash with its publication.

  17. Ted Nation says:

    I’m glad to see you and Lester Brown bringing attention to the developing world food crisis from your related but different perspectives. I have followed his work for years and have been convinced that the world faced a future with critical water and food shortages even without climate change. Now it certainly seems that climate change is causing more and more severe and unpredictable weather patterns that will make the crisis more immediate and severe!

  18. Zoe Lee says:

    Here’s an update from Reuters, including Queensland flood damage assessment.

  19. Adrian says:

    Prokaryotes #10, Thanks for posting Asimov’s comments–prescient & relevant.

    What about hedge funds and commodities speculators?–as an added stressor, I mean, not a cause.

    Climate change + habitat destruction + population growth = catastrophe sooner than climate change alone.

    –though didn’t Brown say that population growth has declined to 1.2% in 2010 so we’re only adding 80 million people a year now? Still a huge challenge, even without climate change.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in the industrial corn and soy heartland where I live–climate change + expensive fertilizer & fuel…

  20. Michael Tucker says:

    Then there is Pakistan.

    “ISLAMABAD – Despite being an agricultural country, Pakistan’s food imports had increased by over 75 percent during the first half (July-December) of the current financial year against the same period previous year.”

    “Stephen Cohen of the Council on Foreign Relations says Pakistan’s woes do not necessarily mean the country is on the verge of collapse, but adds that there are very worrisome trends.

    “…the economy is still foundering. The country is recovering from the recent destructive floods, electric power outages are widespread, prices are rising, and inflation is hovering at over 15 per cent – all of which, analysts say, are further fueling anti-government sentiment.”

    So Pakistan is: importing 75% more food than last year (and that is much more expensive food), suffering high unemployment and inflation making food and other necessary commodities more difficult to purchase, dealing with large displaced populations due to floods at the peak of winter, AND, of course, Pakistan suffers from internal terrorist threats while it supports terrorist activities in neighboring India and Afganistan.

    Not necessarily on the verge of collapse but…

  21. Mossy says:

    Ed Hummel, did you attend Joe’s talk in Portland, ME in the summer of 2009? Some gentleman there asked the “food question.” I talked with him later and discovered we both had been gardening for years, with similar stories about recent declining harvests. My decreased production continued last summer. It makes me feel that if I’m having this much trouble producing crops after 30+ years of successful gardening it doesn’t bode well for the future.

  22. Edward says:

    The article is correct, as far as it goes. As agricultural production approaches zero, food prices approach infinity. Gigadeath is about to happen one way or another.

    Agricultural collapse caused many collapses of civilization. Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses. Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations. Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes. In some cases, all of that group died. On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived. We humans could go EXTINCT in 2051. The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food. If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.

    Planting your own veggies: When collapse happens, roving gangs will take any food they can and torture you to death if you try to hold out. Planting your own garden only makes you a target. It is going to get bloody.

  23. Tom Huntington says:

    I have no doubt that climate warming and associated changes in precipitation (amount, intensity, and variability) will adversely affect crop production in many areas through both direct (e.g. inhibition of pollination, drought, flooding) and indirect (e.g. increasing pests and diseases) effects. However, the blanket statement that you cite from Lester Brown “Every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent, he said.” that is also cited in the Washington Post article you mentioned, is very likely alarmist.

    After “googling” I found the statement in a quote from a Worldwatch Institute Report “Irony of Climate”. In the report it appears that this quote is attributed to John Sheehy at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). John is now retired but after I sent him an email asking about this quote he replied:
    “I don’t think the statement is accurate and I rather doubt I would have commented on wheat and maize. Usually what I said was that for rice temperatures greater than 35C during flowering caused floret sterility and that sterility increased to nearly 100% as temperatures increased from 35C to 40C during flowering. Yields would decline because the flowers were sterile. Many plants and trees show the same pattern of yield decline if such temperatures are experienced during anthesis.

    It is a while since I was thinking about such issues but a paper Sheehy et al. (2005) J. Agric Meterol 60. 463-468 should have references to work in that area. Work by Horie, Allen jnr, Baker, showed similar responses and they may have better descriptions of maize and wheat; perhaps if you googles each one of them you will find the references.”

    Perhaps there are better sources for this quote, if so I would be very interested. Trying to predict quantitative responses of grain yields to a given temperature increase is a complex undertaking and will vary greatly from crop to crop and from site to site and may depend more on increased variability and extreme events than on the incremental change. A more nuanced view is available in the IPCC AR4 WG2 Chapter 5. The thrust of the IPCC summary is that initally, warmer and wetter conditions may increase crop productivity in some regions but as temperatures continue to rise (arguably above 1 degree C warmer than present the adverse effects will begin to outweigh positive effects. See Figure 5.2 in the IPCC chapter noted above for expected sensitivity of maize, wheat and rice based on 69 published studies.

  24. Edward says:

    23 Tom Huntington: See:

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published.

    Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    Drought, heat and floods are already decreasing the food supply.

  25. Mike#22 says:

    Tom@23, “Every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent”

    If you check the references at the end of W.O.T.E you’ll see an article by David Lobell, his page is here:


  26. John McCormick says:

    The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences

    report on “The impact of recent flood events on commodities”

    is available at the following link:

    John McCormick

  27. fj3 says:

    #23. Tom Huntington,

    re: Lester Brown “Every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent, he said.”

    ” . . . is very likely alarmist”

    ” . . . that sterility increased to nearly 100% as temperatures increased from 35C to 40C”

    Not terribly clear from your discussions that Browns statement is alarmist and it might be better question to Lester Brown directly or Earth Policy Institute before it is called alarmist; also, referenced on the Earth Policy website (probably in more places than below):

    Climate change also threatens food security. After a certain point, rising temperatures reduce crop yields. For each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the norm during the growing season, farmers can expect a 10-percent decline in wheat, rice, and corn yields. Since 1970, the earth’s average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius, or roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the temperature will rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) during this century. 10

    10. Shaobing Peng et al., “Rice Yields Decline with Higher Night Temperature from Global Warming,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 6 July 2004, pp. 9,971–75; J. Hansen, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “Global Temperature Anomalies in 0.1 C,” at, updated April 2009; “Summary for Policymakers,” in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 13.

  28. Susan Anderson says:

    Thanks for the Asimov extract – is anyone surprised that we know roughly what we know now in the 80s?

    I think it will not be 2050 but much earlier, perhaps in the next 10 years. My 2 cents.

    New Jersey like Maine had unusually bad drought this summer.

    And peak fossil fuels has more coming – note floods not only destroyed crops but damaged Aussie coal mines.

  29. Leif says:

    Edward, @ 22: ” As agricultural production approaches zero, food prices approach infinity. Gigadeath is about to happen one way or another.”

    Food prices approach infinity for only a very short period of time. Shortly there after that money becomes worthless.

    Think about that BIG MONEY…