Half of worlds population could face climate-driven food crisis in second half of the century

Science study warns: “Ignoring climate projections at this stage will only result in the worst form of triage.”

[I’m on travel, so I’m updating this timely 2009 post on food insecurity.]

The quote above is the powerful final sentence from a 2009 study in Science, “Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat.”  The University of Washington news release release explained:

Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, will leave half the world’s population facing serious food shortages, new research shows”¦.

“The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn’t take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures,” said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor.

Yes, this 2009 study is a serious underestimate of the speed and scale of likely impacts for two reasons.

First, the conclusions are solely based upon projected temperature rise.  They don’t even consider the potentially more devastating impact from more extreme drought and Dust-Bowlification (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts by mid-century even on moderate emissions path) — let alone the combination of heat stress and water stress together.

Second, as is common in such analyses, the authors based their simulations on “the ‘middle of the road’ emission scenario, A1B.” In 2100, A1B hits about 700 ppm with average global temperatures “only” about 3°C (5 F) warmer than today. In fact, on our current emissions path, a 3C temperature rise will happen much sooner (see Hadley Center: “Catastrophic” 5-7°C  warming by 2100 on current emissions path and M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).   And remember, the  worst-case scenario is that this happens by mid-century (se Royal Society special issue details ‘hellish vision’ of 7°F (4°C) world “” which we may face in the 2060s!)

Figure 2

Figure. “Histogram of summer (June, July, and August) averaged temperatures (blue) observed from 1900 to 2006 and (red) projected for 2090 for (A) France, (B) Ukraine, and (C) the Sahel. Temperature is plotted as the departure from the long-term (1900-2006) climatological mean (21). The data are normalized to represent 100 seasons in each histogram. In (A), for example, the hottest summer on record in France (2003) is 3.6°C above the long-term climatology. The average summer temperature in 2090 [assuming A1B] is projected to be 3.7°C greater than the long-term climatological average.”

The results are still alarming:

We used observational data and output from 23 global climate models to show a high probability (>90%) that growing season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics by the end of the 21st century will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded from 1900 to 2006. In temperate regions, the hottest seasons on record will represent the future norm in many locations.

If the authors had modeled the Hadley or M.I.T. or other current business-as-usual scenarios, then I suspect even in the temperate regions, growing season temperatures in 2100 would exceed the most extreme temperatures recorded in the past century “” while the tropics and subtropics will be utterly brutalized.

In the tropics, the higher temperatures can be expected to cut yields of the primary food crops, maize and rice, by 20 to 40 percent, the researchers said. But rising temperatures also are likely to play havoc with soil moisture, cutting yields even further.

Indeed, along with the temperature rise, we face desertification of one third the habited planet and moderate drought over half the land mass. Soil moisture drops over large parts of the planet will exceed that of the 1930s Dust Bowl!  And lasting a long, long time (see NOAA: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).

“We have to be rethinking agriculture systems as a whole, not only thinking about new varieties but also recognizing that many people will just move out of agriculture, and even move from the lands where they live now,” Naylor said.

Currently 3 billion people live in the tropics and subtropics, and their number is expected to nearly double by the end of the century. The area stretches from the southern United States to northern Argentina and southern Brazil, from northern India and southern China to southern Australia and all of Africa”¦.

“When all the signs point in the same direction, and in this case it’s a bad direction, you pretty much know what’s going to happen,” Battisti said. “You are talking about hundreds of millions of additional people looking for food because they won’t be able to find it where they find it now.”

The study warns that the rich countries will also suffer:

Severe heat in the summer of 2003 affected food production as well as human lives in Europe. Record high daytime and nighttime temperatures over most of the summer growing season reduced leaf and grain-filling development of key crops such as maize, fruit trees, and vineyards; accelerated crop ripening and maturity by 10 to 20 days; caused livestock to be stressed; and resulted in reduced soil moisture and increased water consumption in agriculture. Italy experienced a record drop in maize yields of 36% from a year earlier, whereas in France maize and fodder production fell by 30%, fruit harvests declined by 25%, and wheat harvests (which had nearly reached maturity by the time the heat set in) declined by 21%.

Yet, by century’s end, the European summer of 2003 will be considered relatively cool. What do the authors recommend?

It will be extremely difficult to balance food deficits in one part of the world with food surpluses in another, unless major adaptation investments are made soon to develop crop varieties that are tolerant to heat and heat-induced water stress and irrigation systems suitable for diverse agroecosystems. The genetics, genomics, breeding, management, and engineering capacity for such adaptation can be developed globally but will be costly and will require political prioritization. National and international agricultural investments have been waning in recent decades and remain insufficient to meet near-term food needs in the world’s poorest countries, to say nothing of longer-term needs in the face of climate change.

Rather lamely, the study never mentions the possibility of mitigation, of keeping total global warming to far less than 3°C, as a strategy. Why? The final paragraph of the release states:

“You can let it happen and painfully adapt, or you can plan for it,” he said. “You also could mitigate it and not let it happen in the first place, but we’re not doing a very good job of that.”

Okay. Fine. Another understatement of the year.

But since the authors clearly assert in the study that we’re also not doing a very good job of adaptation or investment in agriculture, I’m not sure why it makes more sense for them to push adaptation as a solution than mitigation. In fact, we’ll need to do both, but absent serious mitigation, “climate adaptation” may be little more than cruel doubletalk for most of the world [see Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery; Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions].

[Note to authors — if you ignore mitigation, than you need to model an emissions scenarios that does not have much if any mitigation. Try A1F1 next time.]

If we end up with 5.5°C warming or more by century’s end, and if you throw in the desertification and sharps drops in soil moisture “” plus the loss of the inland glaciers that act as reservoirs for so many major river systems around the globe “” then simply developing crops “that are tolerant to heat and heat-induced water stress” along with better irrigation is likely to prove utterly inadequate and irrelevant for billions of people.

And let’s not forget where we’re ultimately heading — Science stunner: On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter

The only genuine hope for avoiding “the worst form of triage” is aggressive and immediate greenhouse gas mitigation.

For more, see the posts under the category “food insecurity.”

30 Responses to Half of worlds population could face climate-driven food crisis in second half of the century

  1. dan allen says:

    We need to do everything Joe talks about…PLUS start adapting our agriculture to the new climatic and energetic realities we face.

    Check out:

    ‘Choose life so that you may live.’

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    As I’ve said here before: Welcome to Planet Triage.

    It’s all timing, pure and simple. If we take appropriate (i.e. drastic) action immediately, we can avoid a lot of the impacts and human suffering that lie along our BAU path, even with the warming that’s not yet realized but can’t be avoided. If we continue to let the deniers steer us around in a way that trades off future suffering for their short-term profits, then the impacts we eventually feel will be much worse.

    Prediction: Our complacency and inherent divisiveness (some would say tribalism) will keep us from acting in our own best interest to the degree that facts demand. This will continue right up to the point where we experience an inciting incident — WAIS collapse, or perhaps simply the endlessly rising costs of food and other commodities coupled with relentless media reports of climate refugees and starving populations.

    Food and fresh water shortages are the ultimate effects in this causality chain, short of the limiting feedback of our response to them, and they’re the only things that will override our collective arrogance and shortsightedness. But they will only do so at a horrific price.

    How I wish that many of the people involved in pushing us ever faster toward the precipice ahead would live long enough to see what they’ve caused and be put on trial for crimes against humanity. But nearly all of them will live out a long life, proud of their actions, and pass on before things really hit the fan.

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    Thousands left homeless as rains cause floods in Bolivia

  4. Lore says:

    “We need to do everything Joe talks about…PLUS start adapting our agriculture to the new climatic and energetic realities we face.”

    My question is, how do you adapt food crops to a fast changing climate?

    The goal post keeps moving. Sustained agriculture requires a steady climate. What grows in the Midwest today, may not grow there tomorrow even with hybrid strains or adaptive techniques. While moving crops to areas where the climate is acceptable, one might find that other variables are not conducive to growth, such as soil ,water conditions and the availability of energy.

    Then there is the nemesis of devastating and unpredictable weather events, wiping out generations of crops.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    Carlos dropped about 300 millimeters of rain in 24 hours and caused “significant flooding” on the island, Guy Houston, a Chevron spokesman, said in a statement.

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    dan allen said “start adapting our agriculture to the new climatic and energetic realities we face.”

    THE LARGEST no-till group in Australia and a leading organic waste management business have formed a partnership that aims to provide farmers with new investment opportunities while protecting their traditional agricultural interests.

    The joint venture, between the South Australian No-Till Farmers Association and the Jeffries Group, also has the potential to help secure future fertiliser stocks, with biochar set to be one of many commodities produced at the plant.

    With the backing of the State Government, through a recently- announced $274,000 Renewables SA grant, Clean Carbon Capture will complete a feasibility study during the next 12-months.

    It will determine whether a profitable pyrolysis plant to convert organic waste into renewable energy at Buckland Park, north of Adelaide, can be established.

    Jeffries already operates a state-of-the-art composting facility at the site. If the business is given the go-ahead, it will have the capacity to process up to 50,000 tonnes of additional green waste a year. As well as biochar, the business will focus on the production of renewable energy, syngas, that can be used for direct heating or electricity, if run through a generator.

  7. Robert In New Orleans says:

    The ways events are unfolding now, would in my opinion seem to point to a sooner rather than later timeline.

  8. dan allen says:

    #5 Lore: Totally agree. But…unfortunately it’s the only chance we’ve got. The other option, of course, is to go all Derrick Jensen on our civilization — but that’s unpalatable to most.

  9. Wit's End says:

    The UNEP released a report that has been picked up by the media, including CP, stating among other things that global warming can be significantly curbed by reining in emissions of black soot, precursors to tropospheric ozone, and methane.

    Most of the coverage neglects the even more urgent message in their work, which is that ozone is toxic and severely damages crop yield and quality, and it crosses boundaries.

    This could be because the report also makes a direct case for implementing the Polluter Pays Principle, described as: “PPP is an environmental policy principle recognised as fundamental to international environmental law, which requires that the costs of pollution be borne by those who cause it.”

    Ooh, I don’t think the Chamber of Commerce or the Koch Brothers are going to like that idea!

    Many more excerpts from the UNEP posted here;

    David B. Benson might particularly like this one:

    “One obvious health-related issue is the combined effect of heat waves and high ozone levels. Recent studies in France and elsewhere suggest that the overall contribution of ozone to mortality in cities may range from 2.5% to 85.3% in periods of high temperature.”

  10. Daniel Bailey says:

    Couple this with the findings from Dai et al 2010 and you have the recipe for disaster.

    All of this is further is supplemented by the findings of a new study:
    Drought variability in the Pacific Northwest from a 6,000-yr lake sediment record
    (I summarize the results here)

    Study after study, stunner after stunner, shows that our current Business-As-Usual course of emissions is driving us off the proverbial cliff… (cue theme music from Thelma and Louise)

    Thanks for the post, Joe.

    The Yooper

  11. pete best says:

    It wont happen if we do something about it.

  12. Michael Tucker says:

    From The Economist today:
    “A special report on feeding the world
    No easy fix
    Simply using more of everything to produce more food will not work”

    “Water…is crucial. At the moment it is probably agriculture’s critical limiting factor.”

    “By 2030, on most estimates, farmers will need 45% more water. They won’t get it. Cities are the second-largest users of water, and those in the emerging world are growing exponentially. They already account for half the world’s population, a share that will rise to 70% by 2050. In any dispute between cities and farmers, governments are likely to side with cities. Agriculture’s share of the world’s water used to be 90%, so it has already fallen a long way. It will surely decline further.”

    This is a very good article and concludes with:
    “When the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) tried to work out the impacts of climate change on the main cereal crops, almost all its results suggested that yields in 2050 are likely to be lower than they were in 2000, sometimes much lower. Almost half the forecasts showed yield reductions of 9-18% by 2050. One came up with a drop in rainfed-maize yields of 30%. The most vulnerable crop turned out to be wheat, with the largest losses forecast in developing countries. The Indo-Gangetic plain, home to a seventh of mankind and purveyor of a fifth of the world’s wheat, is likely to be especially hard hit.”

    Most reports I have seen show that drought due to climate disruption will be wide spread by 2030. Asia, Africa, and North America are projected to suffer the most. At the same time, according to the National Geographic article on population from January this year, the largest group of adolescents in history will be entering their child bearing years. These are the little children we see around us today and the ones shown suffering around the world on news broadcasts. These young adults will be looking for education, jobs, food, water, and energy. This generation will determine whether world population growth will reach 8 billion or 10 billion by 2050. In 2030 will they find a world unable to meet their basic needs for food and water? The Economist article does not mention the great demand the world also puts on food from the ocean and does not mention what might happen to the food chain if acidification, warming and reef collapse causes widespread collapse of important fish populations. I fear that what ever we do, when we finally decided to do something, will not be enough to avert disaster.

  13. Bob Lang says:

    One major shortcoming of studies like the above is their complete neglect of financial markets as a driver of global economic growth, which in turn is a major climate-change forcing.

    As a close follower of financial markets for many years I am convinced that long before the above scenarios play out, financial markets (both debt & equity) will cease to function and put the global economy into unprecedented decline. The sooner this happens the better because it may turn out to be the most effective climate-change mitigation measure of all.

  14. Paulm says:

    Could this be a bLeak glimpse into what our future will look like in many places…

    Robyn O’Brien, with her husband and two children, was among them. She said people had pulled together, bringing camping equipment and stocks from larders and freezers to share, but it was difficult to stay upbeat. “Every time we go back to our home we think, is it liveable, is it not liveable?” she said. “And today we’re thinking it’s probably not liveable. But you’ve got to stay positive.”

    Another resident of the makeshift camp, who asked not to be named, said the school grounds had become something of a psychological refuge. She was relieved to be cut off from the news, she said, and could not bear to even look at the local newspaper. “I don’t want to know what’s going on out there. I just want to stay in these tents, in our bubble here,” she said.

  15. Lore says:

    Having followed the financial markets and being somewhat of a judge of humanity for many years myself; I believe the inevitable decline of world economies will only exacerbate the move towards more destructive alternatives to cleaner solutions. Worrying about what’s on your dinner plate today usually takes precedent over concerns about tomorrow.

  16. Paulm says:

    Recent research claims that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready genetically modified crops contain an organism, previously unknown to science, that can cause miscarriages in farm animals. This disturbing find comes on the heels of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s decision to deregulate Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA). Roundup Ready is designed to survive Roundup, Monsanto’s weed-killing chemical.

  17. Mark says:

    Fortunately some countries in Europe realise the pressing urgency of now. the Danish strategy for energy independennce from fossil fools is very impressive, and I hope the UK will follow

  18. Paulm says:

    Financial market collapse is not far away. As more come to realize just what climate change (and PO) now means for the future, the markets are going to collapse. This is looking more like it is already starting to happen….

  19. Sailesh Rao says:

    Meanwhile, the UNDP is projecting that production of meat, dairy, eggs and chicken will double from 2000 levels by 2040 to meet rising demand among affluent consumers. At a recent gathering of livestock industry experts, they vowed to improve the efficiency of livestock production to satisfy the appetites of the future. They are no doubt dreaming up crueler versions of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to squeeze out the “inefficiencies” that exist today.

    Our predatory consumption habits are hastening our civilizational collapse. We are literally eating ourselves to a catastrophe, which is truly ironic given our pretensions of being the most intelligent species to ever exist on the face of the earth! After all that language, art, poetry, literature, dance, music, science, medicine, technology and other whiz-bang accomplishments such as walking on the moon and dreaming up missions to Mars, we are literally acting dumber than bacteria in a petri dish. We are deliberately eating high up in the food chain to project a vaster footprint than necessary to hasten our own demise.

    If we can’t even figure out how to stuff our faces sustainably, something that every species in a pristine ecosystem knows how to do, then we have no business puffing ourselves up, pretending to be wiser than them. Or, to bully them needlessly in crueler versions of CAFOs.

  20. K. Nockels says:

    The markets, world events and food production, basically our whole way of life in this industrial society is predicated on predictability. On the belief, and the fact up till now that tomarrow will be pretty much the same as yesterday, this year will be pretty much the same as last year, small changes in the seasons have always followed a predictable pattern 1 bad year but than 5 or 6 good years, both in terms of climate affecting weather and the world events that shape the economic picture. We no longer live in that world. Unpredictability is the new normal, our society has shown itself to be unresponsive in dealing with this new reality. Without stability, the markets can’t cope and revert to the old paradigm of growth at any cost,the affect of which is higher costs for energy, food and everything else. The industrial Agri-mega types are doing the same thing when it comes to growing the food that every human can’t live without. Fossil fuel inputs needed for the currrent way we grow food will not increase yield only cost. Until we look at agriculture as how do we grow food without oil,and diversify what we grow where, the problem of yield will only get worse no matter how many new variety’s the Monsanto’s of this country come up with. Mono cropping as in Monsanto’s idea of owning all seed variety and restricting the use of any others and the kill gene that they employe in their seeds to insure no one can use seed from this years crop to grow the next years crop is infecting non-kill gene plants so that they too will not produce the following year. These are the kinds of methods being used to try and grow food around the world. In a Climate setting that will be changing the rules every year, we will not be able to produce enough food that is affordable for most people. This is without even taking into account the water problems we face, or growing crops for fuel.The cost of growing our food, raising livestock and producing dairy products under the current mega size fossil fuel intensive ventures will soon become unsustainable. When a two year drought destroys hay and alfafa crops for two years in a row,in just 25% of the country and ranchers have to sell off hugh protions of their herds, what will meat cost the next year? This will also affect dairy farms when the price of feed goes up, so do dairy product prices, grain for feed crops are also affected by this drought, yeilds fall below those needed to maintain poultry and pork at an affordable price. Oil hits 100.00 a barrel that next year than what? How much will it cost to truck any of these food items from the giant Agri-farms to our local stores? Add that to the amount of oil that goes into producing it, $5.oo for a gallon of milk, a loaf of cheap bread is $3.00 and you stop eating meat and poultry all together because the price really won’t be affordable to most of us. We really need to downsize and diversify our food production. Local will rule when the price to truck it, meets the loses from Climate Change. Welcome to the new age of Living on the Edge. It’s time to wake up and taste all that oil in our mega-farm food.

  21. Villabolo says:

    Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis in second half of the century

    Is that half of the current population or half of the population by 2050?

    Also, why do most projections assume that there will be a larger population in the future than at present?

  22. Villabolo says:

    @20 Sailesh Rao.

    Sailesh, I appreciate where you’re coming from. However, going vegetarian to increase the amount of grain that can feed people directly, is going to be ineffective if nothing is done to solve the population problem.

    Any advance in food growing capabilities or increased efficiency in food consumption, like vegetarianism, will automatically increase the world’s population.

    Then we’ll be back at square one with a population of 20 billion or more pure vegetarians straining the Earth’s environment.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bob Lang #14, you are, in my opinion, correct concerning the financial markets because they are a giant Ponzi. The only problem is that, as the actions taken by the US Government and the Federal Reserve after the sub-prime rackets precipitated the ‘GFC’ in 2007 show, the powers that be will do anything to protect the rich grifters who are the real rulers in capitalist economies. If it means throwing the steerage passengers, ie the rest of the population, overboard, so much the better. It’s even more stark in Ireland, where the population is being crucified to protect the banksters, and the one ‘untouchable’ is not wages, social welfare or pensions, but the kleptocrats’ dream, the rock-bottom corporate tax rate. That is inviolable. In Latvia, even more of a triumph, the society is being destroyed, birth-rates plummeting, migration, anywhere, rocketing, to protect Swedish banks. In the USA Helicopter Ben’s money conjuring has proved so successful that new asset bubbles are already emerging in commodities, thus starving the ‘useless eaters’, and other necessities of life like junk bonds. Unemployment and underemployment remain high, which is a market good, as it helps drive down the wages of the rest of the rabble, aided by Republican ideologues with union-busting, pension destroying and wage reducing class war tactics, all ready to go, thanks to the Kochtopus. Market capitalism is a wonderful system, alright, for spreading misery and concentrating wealth and power.

  24. Sailesh Rao says:

    Villabolo #23: Prof. Edward O Wilson already addressed your concern. He says that the one good thing going for humans is that the female of our species naturally limits her fertility if given a choice and when assured that her offsprings have a great chance to survive. This is why well-off women who can easily afford to breed by the dozen based strictly on the food available to them, deliberately choose not to do so.

    As an example, the population statistics in India bear him out. When India gained independence from the British in 1947, the Life Expectancy at birth was 36, while the number of children per woman, i.e., the fertility rate was 5.8. The comparable figures for the British were a Life Expectancy of 65 and a fertility rate of 2.7 in 1947. Leaving aside the question of why there was such a discrepancy between UK and India – if the British had the means to extract natural resources from remote regions of India, surely they had the means to supply childhood vaccines and neo-natal care to improve life expectancy – sixty two years later, in 2009, the Life Expectancy at birth in India was 64 while the fertility rate was 2.68.

    From a population growth standpoint, India was doing better in 2009 than the UK was doing in 1947.

  25. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Paulm, don’t always believe Huffpo.

  26. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent analysis on future food supplies if action is not initiated to avert impending climate change.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

  27. paulm says:

    26 Pete I dont believe anything until proven. However, one must always keep up with the issue…just in case.

  28. Tony says:

    JR, what do you think of the proposition that peak oil might, paradoxically, “save us”, by making greater emissions impossible (due to economic collapse)?

    [JR: Tar sands, coal to diesel, shale, natural gas liquids….]

  29. Villabolo says:

    @29 Tony says:

    JR, what do you think of the proposition that peak oil might, paradoxically, “save us”, by making greater emissions impossible (due to economic collapse)?

    [JR: Tar sands, coal to diesel, shale, natural gas liquids….]

    Since those alternatives are more expensive than conventional oil and coal they may make the way for solar power to be more competetive. But only if the oil and coal industries don’t interfere with the “free market”.