Grim reaping: Climate change and agriculture

Ice melt and sea level rise have gotten a lot of attention in public discourse surrounding climate change. In many ways this makes perfect sense.  Hundreds of millions of people live at or near sea level around the world, including a number of major cities, and melting ice is something with which nearly everyone has at least some personal experience. Both also provide easily visible and demonstrable measures for change.  Sea level rise, however, is not the aspect of climate change that worries me the most. It will absolutely cause problems – it already is – but I fear that even accounting for mass migration of people away from under-prepared coastal regions, it will be dwarfed by the changes happening on land.

At this point I think it’s pretty safe to say that before the end of the century, parts of this planet will be too hot for unassisted human life, for at least some of the year. This will start in places that largely don’t have much of a human population, but it will not stop there. As with sea level rise, we will suffer from these changes long before we reach the point at which humans just can’t live in a given location. Heat waves and droughts will continue to get worse, and to make life increasingly difficult long before it becomes outright impossible. Just as sea level rise already combines with storms to cause catastrophic flooding, so does the global rise in temperature exacerbate heat waves that damage infrastructure, kill people, cause fires, and destroy crops.

That “increasingly difficult” zone is, in many ways, more worth worrying about than the “certain death” zone, because it’s going to cover much larger parts of the planet, and the biggest difficulty is likely to be food production. For all climate science deniers love to describe CO2 as “plant food”, it can’t replace water, and higher temperatures mean higher water demand. I’ve already talked some about the threats to water access we face even without climate change, which are considerable. This is not a good position to be in.

Long-time readers of my work are probably aware that I believe 2010 to be a vital example of the kinds of devastation we can expect on a regular basis before too long. While there were heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere that year, I want to focus in particular on two countries – Russia and Pakistan.

The heat wave in Russia was brutal. It directly killed an estimated 55,000 people, and caused short-and long-term health problems for many more, through the increase in air pollution from fires and high temperatures. On top of that, the heat wave and fires caused massive crop failures, leading Russia to ban grain exports. According to Oxfam, this ban did nothing to reduce food prices in Russia, but did lead to a measurable increase in the cost of grain internationally:

  1. The ban did increase prices outside Russia. In countries that imported Russian grain, the most immediate impact of the import ban was to require countries to pay the new and higher international rates for grain that was contracted at lower rates.
  2. The export ban set prices higher still across the world. The immediate impact of the ban was certainly a further rise in prices, as we saw in the reaction of commodity markets immediately following the announcement of the ban. This impact was felt by everyone and not just Russia’s customers.(You can see the PDF of the full Oxfam report here)

This, by itself, was a disaster with global implications.

The effects on Russia, however, were not the full extent of what happened. The Russian heatwave contributed to a continent-wide weather pattern that also caused devastating floods in Pakistan.

We presented preliminary evidence suggesting that the two extreme events in the summer of 2010 (i.e., the Russia heat wave and the Pakistan flood) were meteorologically connected. Both events were unusual in that the magnitudes of the anomalies far exceeded by more than 2σ their respective climatological variability. The Russian heat wave was unusual in size and magnitude and in its eastward location compared to climatology and in the development of a pronounced blocking high with a well-defined Ω-flow pattern, a split upper-level jet stream, and deep trough penetrating to the subtropics over northern Pakistan. The Pakistan heavy rain during late July and August was also coincident with the arrival of the northward propagation of the monsoon intraseasonal oscillation, coupled with increased southeasterly moisture transport along the Himalayan foothills from the Bay of Bengal to northern Pakistan.

The flooding in Pakistan was horrific, with around 20% of the country under water and – as with the Russian drought – massive crop destruction, along with the damage to homes, infrastructure, and industry that are typical of floods (quote from August of 2010).

The UN Secretary General visited Pakistan’s flood-hit areas and summed up the situation best when he said that it was an ‘enormous disaster.’ The Secretary General noted that he had ‘never seen anything like the devastation created by the floods’ with ‘so many people, in so many places in so much need.’ The scale of the human tragedy is near epic and likely hard for outsiders to fathom; flood waters have submerged one-fifth of Pakistan—roughly an area the size of Florida, leaving over 1600 dead and an estimated 20 million displaced. Towns, villages, crops, livestock, personal possessions and infrastructure have been completely washed away. Diseases now threaten the people in makeshift camps, signaling a catastrophic sequel to the floods.

It is early to weigh the long-term consequences, but they are worrisome. The statistics being quoted indicate the massive economic consequences of the floods. A major gas field and six power plants have been shut down, adding another 1500 megawatts to the already 4500 megawatts power shortfall. Besides the destruction of infrastructure like bridges, irrigation canals, homes, roads and railway tracks, there is large scale damage to agriculture; almost 17 million acres of farmland have been flooded and billions of dollars worth of crops and livestock destroyed. Three of Pakistan’s four provinces are affected by the floods, which is notable in a country where 22% of the economy is dependent on agriculture and two-thirds of the 180 million people are in agriculture related work. The impact on the economy will be enormous and early estimates are that growth will be halved. […] The overall effect is that in spite of the endurance and resilience shown by Pakistanis in past disasters, there is likely to be prolonged disruption; rehabilitation may take anything up to five years or more with a total requirement of over 10 billion US dollars.

These were just two of the climate-related events that occurred in 2010. There was also flooding in the U.S., droughts in Africa and the Middle East, heat waves across the Northern Hemisphere, a severe drought in the Amazon River basin, drought in China, and also flooding in China. There’s a degree to which drought and flooding are normal annual occurrences, but as the temperature rises, they become more frequent and more intense wherever they happen, and as they do, the odds of major disasters occurring simultaneously in multiple places around the world increase. It can take many years to recover from a particular event, but we no longer have that time, and when many countries are suffering all at the same time, the demand for aid increases, and the number of countries able to provide that aid decreases.

We are now caught in the storm of climate change. We have entered an age of endless recovery, and because of that, we need to make major changes to how we run things as part of our efforts to recover from disasters. It’s common for the process of rebuilding to include measures taken to reduce the damage next time a disaster occurs – it’s why we see different architecture evolve in places that are more vulnerable to things like earthquakes, for example. But with the climate warming at an accelerating rate, we cannot afford to be reactive. The scientific method can act like a strobe light on a stormy sea, giving us glimpses of the ever-shifting future. It’s not enough for us to plot out every wave that will hit our ship, but it will show us where the big swells and troughs are, and help us steer into them in a way that will reduce our chances of capsizing.

As it stands, there’s a struggle not just about whether we should turn into the oncoming swells, but also about whether the storm is even happening, and whether the light from the strobe – imperfect as it is – is even worth paying attention to, because after all, turning the ship requires effort.

But the reality is that the flickering light of science has given us a very good idea what to expect from the future, and we know a number of things that we could be doing, right now, to prepare for what’s coming. That includes things like preparing for sea level rise, as many cities around the world are doing, but it also includes changing how we manage agriculture now, before we’re forced to by global crop failures and famine.

The same Oxfam report that discussed the economic fallout of Russia’s drought and export ban also made some recommendations that I think are worth considering:

  • Export bans should be avoided – while they may be politically necessary in extreme circumstances, they are always unreliable economic management tools;
  • Subsidies to the final producer of the food (like a bread or flour producer) are more likely to be effective than bans on export, if the aspiration is to keep domestic food prices low;
  • Policies aimed at alleviating the difficulties faced by vulnerable groups need to target those groups. Export bans, even if they were to work as planned, are universal and so have very small impact on anyone in particular;
  • Russia should try to balance its support for the meat industry with greater support for investment in grain as this would help both industries long-term.

I think this is important on a couple different levels. The last bullet point is the first I want to address. Climate activists have been pushing for a big reduction in meat consumption and farming for decades now for two simple reasons. First, the livestock (particularly cattle) and their waste generate a fair amount of methane and nitrous oxide, which are both powerful greenhouse gases. This can be mitigated somewhat by using the waste to generate biogas for fuel, but that doesn’t deal with the gas emitted by the animals directly, and it doesn’t address the second point – energy investment per calorie.

Livestock generally eats a lot of the same stuff humans do, but every pound of meat you get generally takes around ten pounds of plant-based food to raise, and there’s also a high water cost associated with the process. Moving society to an increasingly plant-based diet would reduce the amount of power, chemical fertilizers, and water used to generate food considerably, even without any other changes to farming practices. That means that in the event of a drought or a flood, there would not be livestock competing with people for food and water. It would also reduce the amount of land required to grow enough food to feed everybody.

This is not a conclusion with which I’m thrilled – I really, really like eating meat – but the numbers are pretty clear on this. Livestock farming needs to be dramatically reduced, and a vegetarian diet needs to become the default for most people, most of the time. There may be arguments to be made for small-scale meat production, livestock for things like dairy and eggs, or a shift to farming insects for protein, but regardless of the trajectory taken, what we’re doing now cannot continue.

I think the analysis of the export ban and its effects is also key. Nationalist modes of thought may end up being a major killer as this century wears on. Short-sighted efforts at protectionism, and “common sense” solutions will exacerbate mistrust and resentment between nations, cause needless hunger for no real benefit, and undermine international cooperation at a time when the survival of humanity may well depend on just that. Even if we’re faced with planet-wide crop failures, those crops that do grow should be shared as much as possible, both to maintain commerce and cooperation, and to take advantage of the different growing capacity of different regions. While it’s probably a good idea for countries to aim for something close to self-sufficiency in food production, it will remain the case that certain foods will grow better in some places than in others. As food production becomes less reliable, taking advantage of those differences may mean the difference between prosperity and starvation.

At the same time, we also need to look beyond conventional modes of farming. There’s a lot of work being done in this area, from hydroponic and aeroponic indoor and/or vertical farming, to seawater greenhouses. It’s unclear to me how well these can be scaled up to meet the nutritional needs of humanity, but it’s good that they’re being explored and implemented, as I think there’s value in having agriculture that doesn’t rely on increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.

On the same note, another promising area of food production is microalgae and bacteria, which can be grown using salt water, and seem likely to be cheaper per calorie produced than other indoor farming methods.

“Microalgae are very interesting. They are marine organisms, which means that they don’t need freshwater, unlike soybean,” Dr Tzachor says. “And we don’t have to cultivate them on terrestrial areas, so we can grow them within facilities, and these facilities can also be closed.”
The savings on water alone would be significant, says Dr Tzachor. He says experiments at Algaennovation’s facility have so far been able to achieve between 200 and 250 times more biomass per litre of water than soybean farming. The next stage of development is demonstrating that microalgae production can be done on a mass scale.
A similar approach is being undertaken by researchers in Finland, but their focus is on producing a supplement for human food rather than stock feed. Pasi Vainikka, from the company Solar Foods, says his company has used a bio-reactor to produce an edible flour made from fermented bacteria.
“We have a fermenter, but we don’t use yeast. We use a specific microbe that doesn’t eat sugar,” he says. “So instead of sugar we introduce carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and these the microbe uses for energy and carbon instead of sugars to grow. Then we take the liquid out of the fermenter when the microbes grow and multiply and you end up with a dry powder.”
The flour, called Solein, has a 65 per cent protein content, says Dr Vainikka, and can be used as a substitute for wheat flour or soya in everything from bread to protein drinks.
“The organism has carotenoids. When you taste it raw it has a bit of an umami (savoury) taste,” he says. “When you add it to pancakes, for example, it tastes as if it would have egg, and also a bit of carrot taste. The production cost, according to our estimations, is around $US5 per kilogram.”
But that cost, says Dr Vainikka, could be expected to decrease as production begins to scale.
“We are about 10 times more environmentally friendly than plants and about 100 times better than animal-based proteins,” he says. “If we want to make a fundamentally more sustainable food system for the increasing population, we need to disconnect from agriculture, which usually means irrigation, use of pesticides and a lot of land use. So, when we disconnect from everything that has to do with these processes, the environmental benefits are huge.”

As with renewable energy, the important factor is not just development of new innovations in food production, but also in the implementation of those methods that we already have available, to shift away from reliance on less sustainable modes of food production. As with so many other necessary changes, I think there’s a great deal of danger in simply hoping that “market forces” will cause the change for us, because to the degree that that does happen, it’s likely to be through mass starvation, and I’d prefer to avoid that. Early implementation – before we need these other methods to survive – is key to discovering problems that aren’t likely to arise in any other way. It would be foolish and reckless to assume that just because something like algae or bacteria farming is done under controlled conditions, that we don’t have to worry about unforeseen problems. Chemical contamination, nutrient deficiencies, and infection from dangerous fungi, bacteria, or viruses could all be complicating factors, and lead to modes of crop failure that we’ve yet to encounter. Any monoculture arrangement is vulnerable to that sort of thing, and I see no reason why these more controlled environments would be immune, any more than vertical farms are wholly immune to the pests and blights with which we are more familiar.

Our response to climate change, on the whole, has been far too little and far too late. We’re playing catch-up, and every year of further delay increases the likely death toll down the road. We already subsidize food and energy production to a massive degree, and have spent public resources on societal improvements throughout history, so in that regard, what’s needed is nothing new.

As with so much else, the primary resource we seem to be lacking is political will to act before we’re forced to by circumstances beyond our control. To return to an earlier metaphor, our ship is being swamped, and the command crew has locked themselves in the helm, apparently with a massive supply of intense drugs. We’ve been trying to negotiate with them since the 1980s at least, but so far that hasn’t worked. We need to break in and take back control.

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  1. ColeYote says

    But with the climate warming at an accelerating rate, we cannot afford to be reactive.

    Politicians and business executives: “Hear ya loud and clear, we will not react to it.”

    (Cannot remember the last time I told a joke that depressing)


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