Food supply straining on a warming planet

The dun wheat field spreading out at Ravi P Singh’s feet offered a possible clue to human destiny. Baked by a desert sun and deliberately starved of water, the plants were parched and nearly dead. Singh, a wheat breeder, grabbed seed heads that should have been plump with the staff of life. His practiced fingers found empty husks. “You’re not going to feed the people with that,” he said.

But then, over in Plot 88, his eyes settled on a healthier plant, one that had managed to thrive in spite of the drought, producing plump kernels of wheat. “This is beautiful!” he shouted as wheat beards rustled in the wind. It’s hope in a stalk of grain: It is a hope the world needs these days, for the great agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble. The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.

Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilise the food system: climate change. Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.

Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to the price gyrations. A rising unease about the future of the world’s food supply came through during interviews this year with more than 50 agricultural experts working in nine countries. These experts say that in coming decades, farmers need to withstand whatever climate shocks come their way while roughly doubling the amount of food they produce to meet rising demand.

Water shortages

Sitting with a group of his fellow wheat farmers, Francisco Javier Ramos Bours voiced a suspicion. Water shortages had already arrived in recent years for growers in his region, the Yaqui Valley, which sits in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico. In his view, global climate change could well be responsible. “All the world is talking about it,” Ramos said as the other farmers nodded. Farmers everywhere face rising difficulties: water shortages as well as flash floods. Their crops are afflicted by emerging pests and diseases and by blasts of heat beyond anything they remember.

Decades ago, the wheat farmers in the Yaqui Valley of Mexico were the vanguard of a broad development in agriculture called the Green Revolution, which used improved crop varieties and more intensive farming methods to raise food production across much of the developing world. When Norman E Borlaug, a young US agronomist, began working here in the 1940s under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Yaqui Valley farmers embraced him. His successes as a breeder helped farmers raise Mexico’s wheat output sixfold. In the 1960s, Borlaug spread his approach to India and Pakistan, where mass starvation was feared. Output soared there, too.

Other countries joined the Green Revolution. Borlaug became the only agronomist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1970, for helping to “provide bread for a hungry world.” As he accepted the prize in Oslo, he issued a stern warning. “We may be at high tide now,” he said, “but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts.”
As output rose, staple grains – which feed people directly or are used to produce meat, eggs, dairy products and farmed fish – became cheaper and cheaper. Overall, the percentage of hungry people in the world shrank. By the late 1980s, food production seemed under control. Governments and foundations began to cut back on agricultural research, or to redirect money into the problems created by intensive farming, like environmental damage. Over a 20-year period, western aid for agricultural development in poor countries fell by almost half, with some of the world’s most important research centres suffering mass layoffs.

Just as Borlaug had predicted, the consequences of this loss of focus began to show up in the world’s food system toward the end of the century. Output continued to rise, but because fewer innovations were reaching farmers, the growth rate slowed.
That lull occurred just as food and feed demand was starting to take off, thanks in part to rising affluence across much of Asia. And erratic weather began eating into yields. In 2007 and 2008, with grain stockpiles low, prices doubled and in some cases tripled. Whole countries began hoarding food, and panic buying ensued in some markets, notably for rice. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries.

Experts are starting to fear that the era of cheap food may be over. “Our mindset was surpluses,” said Dan Glickman, a former US secretary of agriculture. “That has just changed overnight.”

Promises unkept

At the end of a dirt road in northeastern India, nestled between two streams, lies the remote village of Samhauta. Anand Kumar Singh, a farmer there, recently related a story that he could scarcely believe himself. Last June, he planted 10 acres of a new variety of rice. On Aug. 23, the area was struck by a severe flood that submerged his field for 10 days. In years past, such a flood would have destroyed his crop. But the new variety sprang back to life, yielding a robust harvest. “That was a miracle,” Singh said.

The new rice variety that is exciting farmers in India is the product of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Leading researchers say it is possible to create crop varieties that are more resistant to drought and flooding and that respond especially well to rising carbon dioxide.

The flood-tolerant rice was created from an old strain grown in a small area of India, but decades of work were required to improve it. Money was so tight that even after the rice had been proven to survive floods for twice as long as previous varieties, distribution to farmers was not assured. Then a US charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stepped in with a $20 million grant to finance final development and distribution of the rice in India and other countries. It may get into a million farmers’ hands this year.

Governments have recognised that far more effort is needed on their part, but they have been slow to deliver. In 2008 and 2009, in the midst of the political crises set off by food prices, the world’s governments outbid one another to offer support. At a conference in L’Aquila, Italy, they pledged about $22 billion for agricultural development. It later turned out, however, that no more than half that was new money not previously committed to agriculture, and two years later, the extra financing has not fully materialised. “It’s a disappointment,” Gates said.

The New York Times

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