Thursday, January 14, 2016
Food for Thought
It’s easy to read the headlines and see footage on weather disasters, most of which have some strong linkage to dramatic climate change issue. With a particularly powerful boost from a strong El Niño beginning in early January, we have tons of images of floods, particularly up and down the Mississippi River basin. Homes and businesses lost. Tornados and fierce winds making it worse. Powerful images. The California drought is still big news despite the newfound rain.
But behind the headlines are the little stories lost on the back pages of printed, televised and Web-based news… little stories with a big and rather immediate impact on our wallets. In an open letter published in Nature.com (January 6th) – entitled Influence of extreme weather disasters on global crop production (by Corey Lesk, Pedram Rowhani and Navin Ramankutty) – the authors analyzed the underlying data on food production as impacted by the recent mega-changes in weather realities all over the world.
The numbers aren’t good. There will be more starving people in the near term and food prices are simply going to rise far faster than any other part of the commodity markets. And while floods create short term displacements in crop production, the more serious crop impairments come from the other end of the weather spectrum: increasingly hot, dry conditions.
“‘People already knew that these extreme weather events had impacts on crop production,’ said Navin Ramankutty, a geographer from the University of British Columbia and an author of the report. ‘But we didn’t know by how much, and we didn’t have a basis for how that might change in the future.’
“Dr. Ramankutty and his team combined data from a disaster database with food production information from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. They looked at about 2,800 weather disasters, such as the 1983-1984 drought in Ethiopia and the 2003 European heat wave, along with data on 16 different cereals, including oats, barley, rye and maize, grown in 177 countries.
“They found that droughts cut a country’s crop production by 10 percent, and heat waves by 9 percent, but that floods and cold spells had no effects on agricultural production levels. His team estimated a loss of more than three billion tons of cereal production from 1964 to 2007 as a result of droughts and heat waves.
“‘We don’t think about it much, but rice, wheat and maize alone provide more than 50 percent of global calories,’ Dr. Ramankutty said. ‘When these grain baskets are hit, it results in food price shocks, which leads to increasing hunger…
“The team also found that the effects of droughts were more severe for crops produced in developed countries than in underdeveloped countries. Dry spells caused losses of nearly 20 percent in North America, Europe and the Australasia region, but only 12 percent in Asia and 9 percent in Africa. They found no significant effects from droughts in Latin America.
“One reason for the discrepancy, Dr. Rowhani said, is that developed nations tend to grow more uniform crops, which may be more vulnerable to drought, while underdeveloped countries grow diverse patches of plants that may have greater resilience.
“The team also found that droughts occurring since 1985 were more severe than earlier ones, causing average losses of about 14 percent compared with about 7 percent. They suggest that climate change may affect the frequency and severity of these events in the future.” New York Times, January 6th.
The bottom line: it’s the warming trend that is the real concern. With grains (rice, wheat and corn being the mainstays) providing about half the calories consumed by people all over the world, it is precisely these crops that are feeling the worst pinch. Our inability to contain greenhouse gasses at any level remotely necessary to reverse these global weather catastrophes will continue to hit those at the bottom rungs of the global economy far worse than those on top. For many of them, it is a question of life or death. But since grain is the driver of food prices (think about grain as the livestock/poultry/dairy cow feed source and go from there), we are all going to be slammed with higher food prices as well.
My big question remains, since the real, hard dollar cost of global warming is heading for the trillions and trillions of dollars level, from loss of homes, livelihoods, land mass, disease and insect infestation to decreased crop yields and political instability, not to mention the rather dramatic increase in mortality statistics, why do American political candidates believe that they can ignore these costs and look solely to the “growth” statistics of businesses in the U.S. to measure success?
We are all going to pay hard dollars for those costs. Taxes, the federal deficit, higher food prices, personal losses, higher insurance premiums, etc., etc. will cost us rather directly. What business can continue to thrive by ignoring losses, eliminating negative numbers from their balance sheets and income statements, and only looking at the positive numbers? It’s time to live in the real world, understand the real costs and deal with facts as they are… not as lying politicians tell you they are.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while the new reality is scary, if we don’t make some big changes in the way we live and consume, our future will be even scarier.