Climate Threat to Crops Underestimated: What can we expect as the world warms?

If I could snap my fingers and make one, single change to most improve humanity’s shot of surviving this global warming event, I would move all of our food production indoors. We are vulnerable to climate change in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest is the fact that the vast majority of our food production is tied to historically reliable seasonal weather patterns. Human agriculture has been shaped through history by the regional climates in which we’ve lived – the best times and crops to plant and harvest, the behavior of fish and game to supplement crops and livestock. Growing up, my dad told me that when the goldenrod bloomed, it was 6 weeks till the first frost, and that fireflies and Juneberries mean the mackerel are running. These and other such things are bits of regional “climate wisdom” that once contained vital information for getting enough food to survive the winter, but have been mostly useless for well over a decade.

For the most part, the changes we’ve seen thus far have been manageable, but we’ve always known that there would be a point at which that was no longer the case. Crop failures due to drought and other weather events are not a new thing, but there has never been any question in my mind that we’re very close to a time when there are so many climate-related crop failures at the same time, all around the world, that it causes serious problems. It’s arguable that that has already been happening in the past couple years, to some degree. From last year:

June 28 (Reuters) – Eric Broten had planned to sow about 5,000 acres of corn this year on his farm in North Dakota, but persistent springtime rains limited him to just 3,500 in a state where a quarter or more of the planned corn could remain unsown this year.

The difficulty planting corn, the single largest grain crop in the world, in the northern United States adds to a string of troubled crop harvests worldwide that point to multiple years of tight supplies and high food costs.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major agricultural exporter, sent prices of wheat, soy and corn to near records earlier this year. Poor weather has also reduced grain harvests in China, India, South America and parts of Europe. Fertilizer shortages meanwhile are cutting yields of many crops around the globe. read more

The world has perhaps never seen this level of simultaneous agricultural disruption, according to agriculture executives, industry analysts, farmers and economists interviewed by Reuters, meaning it may take years to return to global food security.

“Typically when we’re in a tight supply-demand environment you can rebuild it in a single growing season. Where we are today, and the constraints around boosting production and (war in) Ukraine … it’s two to three years before you get out of the current environment,” said Jason Newton, chief economist for fertilizer producer Nutrien Ltd. (NTR.TO).

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the world faces an unprecedented hunger crisis, with a risk of multiple famines this year and a worse situation in 2023.

Ahead of a crucial North American harvest, grain seeding delays from Manitoba to Indiana have sparked worries about lower production. A smaller corn crop in the top-producing United States will ripple through the supply chain and leave consumers paying even more for meat than they already are, as corn is a key source of livestock feed. read more

Global corn supplies have been tight since the pandemic started in 2020, due to transportation problems and strong demand, and are expected to fall further. The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) expects end-of-season U.S. corn stocks to be down 33% from pre-pandemic levels in September before this year’s harvest, and down 37% in September 2023.

There are factors at work here that are separate from climate change, but with weather-related harvest reductions all around the world, it’s clearly part of the story. I said the other day that we’re not prepared for what’s coming in the very near future, and a big part of that is the fact that very, very little has been done to climate-proof food production. I’ve been saying (to my tiny readership) that we’ve got to move things indoors, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll be doing it later, after far too many lives are lost to famine. Indoor farming does require spending energy on grow lights, but it is vastly more water-efficient, and the controlled environment means a dependably idea “climate” for the crops, and much, much less of a pest problem. There are other options, like using more of a factory setting to grow algae and edible bacteria, but what matters is that there are options, and we need to be building them up right now.

I am quite certain that hydroponics, and aeroponics, and bacterial cultures, and fungus farms, and any other ways of growing food indoors will have problems that need to be sorted out. Power failures would be a much greater danger for food production, for example, and given that extreme weather tends to mess with the power grid, that means that we’ll need to either improve the grid, have excellent backup for these facilities, or ideally both. That’s just one example, though, and it would be far better for us to figure out those problems now, while we still have plenty of food grown the old-fashioned way.

The question is, how much time do we have?

My answer, as always, is “not enough, so we should get to work now”. I’ve long felt that the possibility of simultaneous crop failures around the globe has been criminally under-reported. I don’t entirely trust mainstream news outlets not to turn potential food shortages into a Malthusian overpopulation thing, but this is something that needs to be addressed, because I believe it’s coming sooner than most people think, and it looks like the science agrees with me:

The risks of harvest failures in multiple global breadbaskets have been underestimated, according to a study Tuesday that researchers said should be a “wake up call” about the threat climate change poses to our food systems.

Food production is both a key source of planet-warming emissions and highly exposed to the effects of climate change, with climate and crop models used to figure out just what the impacts could be as the world warms.

In the new research published in Nature Communications, researchers in the United States and Germany looked at the likelihood that several major food producing regions could simultaneously suffer low yields.

These events can lead to price spikes, food insecurity and even civil unrest, said lead author Kai Kornhuber, a researcher at Columbia University and the German Council on Foreign Relations.

By “increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, we are entering this uncharted water where we are struggling to really have an accurate idea of what type of extremes we’re going to face,” he told AFP.

“We show that these types of concurring events are really largely underestimated.”

The study looked at observational and climate model data between 1960 and 2014, and then at projections for 2045 to 2099.

Researchers first looked at the impact of the jet stream – the air currents that drive weather patterns in many of the world’s most important crop producing regions.

They found that a “strong meandering” of the jet stream, flowing in big wave shapes, has particularly significant impacts on key agricultural regions in North America, Eastern Europe and East Asia, with a reduction in harvests of up to seven percent.

The researchers also found that this had been linked to simultaneous crop failures in the past.

One example was in 2010, when the fluctuations of the jet stream were linked to both extreme heat in parts of Russia and devastating floods in Pakistan, which both hurt crops, Kornhuber said.

The climate events of 2010 are something I’ve brought up before when making this point. I want to say that when it comes to most climate-related things, I very much want to be proven wrong. Everything I’ve seen indicates that things are going to get worse that most people expect, faster than most people expect. I do feel a small amount of satisfaction when I see things I’ve been saying break into the mainstream more (though I played no role in that), but I’d much rather climate change turn out to be not a serious problem. There are people to whom I’d enjoy saying “I told you so”, but none of them read this blog, and chances are good that many of them will ever know I exist.

At this point, as we consider the possibility of a global food shortage driven by our rapidly warming climate, I want to take a brief moment to use the history of my current home – Ireland – to discuss how those first climate famines are likely to unfold, assuming no major changes to our global agricultural system.

So, as most of you are aware, Ireland had a devastating famine from 1845-1852, during which time around one million people died, and around two million people left the island in desperation. Leading up to that point, British colonial rule had led to the Irish relying heavily on potatoes to survive. They had to grow food to export, for the profit of English landlords, and potatoes can feed more people more easily per acre of crops than grains, so the tenant farmers subsisted on them to maximize land for the cash crops. When the potato blight hit Europe, it specifically took out the primary subsistence crop for the island. All the other food – grains and cow products especially – was grown for money, and so while Ireland starved, more food was exported than was needed to feed the nation. There’s a lot of stuff out there on this, but if you want a brief overview, I recommend this video from the Gravel Institute:

This is not directly analogous to the global situation today, but where Ireland was dependent on potatoes, and forced to keep exporting food “owed” to English capitalists as they starved, a great many nations in the world are dependent on food imports bought with money earned by growing cash crops, almost always for the profit of multinational corporations. Africa, in particular, is extremely dependent on imports – a problem that has been maintained through neocolonial debt traps, and a capitalist system backed up by threat of war or the assassination of any leader that tries to put their country on a new track. What this means is that when (not if) climate change creates major crop failures, it’s probably not going to result starvation for people in rich, white countries, at the beginning.

As with Ireland, the cash crops will continue to be exported, but as food prices rise, African countries will have a harder time importing the food they need to survive, and so starvation will hit there first. There will be people dying of malnutrition in rich countries, of course, but that’s a matter of routine policy to keep workers in line, as I’ve discussed in the past. The same global capitalist system that exploits the former colonies will also act as a buffer between rich countries and certain consequences of climate change. Poor nations, just like poor citizens in rich countries, will be sacrificed for the “greater good” of maintaining the wealth, power, and comfort of the capitalist aristocracy.

I think that the way the English press reported on the famine can also inform what we will hear, as those people starve:

The worst famine in a century was depicted as an extension of normal, recurring events, and the newspaper consistently complained about the financial burdens forced on British workers for the sake of the starving Irish. On 15 September 1846, its editorial declared,

‘It appears to us of the very first importance to all classes of Irish society to impress on them that there is nothing really so peculiar, so exceptional, in the condition which they look upon as the pit of utter despair’.

It continued, ‘Is the English labourer to compensate the Irish peasant for the loss of potatoes, and secure him a regular employer for this next twelvemonth? Why, the English labourer is in just the same case.’

Indolent Irish

The notion that the Irish were leaching off the English taxpayer (often used as a synonym for the British taxpayer) was a view bound up with contemporary debates about politics, culture and the economy, as well as emerging ideas about race.

The Irish did not fare well in such theories. Amongst politicians and in large sections of the public, they were viewed as inferior and antithetical to the English. While pity and sympathy for Ireland’s plight was not uncommon in early newspaper depictions of the Famine, negative stereotypes were just as prevalent, and the Irish were often viewed in opposition to the English labourer, who typified the ‘respectable’ poor whom the indolent Irish were trying to abuse.

The Times argued that Ireland should ‘pay for its own improvement’ (19 August 1846); the apparent unwillingness of its people to do so demonstrated ‘a case of permanent and inveterate national degradation’ (12 October 1847).

‘Their own wickedness and folly’

Nor was The Times alone in its view. Other publications claimed that the Irish were responsible for their own misfortune. The Economist, founded in 1843, declared on 10 October 1846 that Irish distress was ‘brought on by their own wickedness and folly’.

Punch, a new type of illustrated magazine founded in 1841, portrayed these views pictorially. In one cartoon from February 24, 1849,  we can see a smiling, shabbily dressed Irishman (denoted by ape-like features, clothing and a clay pipe) riding the shoulders of England’s respectable poor with a sack of £50,000 slung over his shoulder.

Blaming the Irish

These national views often complemented provincial reportage elsewhere in Britain. In Liverpool, the extensive immigration of the Irish poor had provoked questions about the social ills impacting the city – questions which Victorian society had become increasingly preoccupied with since the early nineteenth century.

Refugees fleeing Ireland were treated much the same as refugees are treated today. They were scapegoated for all the problems of the host countries, and blamed for problems of their home countries, and this is what we can expect from the climate famines that will come later this century. I feel quite comfortable predicting this, because it’s still very much a part of daily life in rich nations. Any online conversation about problems in Africa will inevitably conjure an army of (usually white) people to talk about how it’s all their own fault and why we shouldn’t accept refugees, and some of them will probably bring up the racist drivel of The Bell Curve.

Take the recent sinking of a refugee boat off of Greece, for example. There’s no shortage of people willing to blame the drowning victims for their deaths, even as it looks increasingly as though the Greek coast guard was to blame. Around the world, look at how wealthy nations are handling refugees of all sorts, and you’ll get an idea for how climate change will turn crop failures into mass starvation and death. Over time, those food shortages will do more than just raise prices in rich nations, but the first wave will break hardest on the poorest nations in the world, and that is by design. It is also by design that refugees will face high death rates as they seek safety, and poor treatment from host countries.

As I’ve said before, there are things we could be doing to prevent this gloomy forecast from coming true. Indoor food production has been growing for years, so many problems have already been solved. A massive investment could make a real difference in a pretty short amount of time, at least when it comes to the mechanics of successfully producing enough food. Unfortunately, neocolonialism is a problem that needs to be solved all by itself. If we don’t do that, then as with Ireland in the 1840s, the former colonies will be “left” to a fate forced upon them.

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  1. says

    As you’ve said, there’s an obvious solution to the disasters of artificial scarcity, and it’s rejecting capitalism. As the global south tries once again to shake off that horrid beast, they will need to figure out some kind of means of resisting the CIA’s playbooks that works better than it did the first time around. Good luck, comrades.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Just how do you propose that Eric Broten put his 5K acres of grain “indoors”?

  3. planter says

    Agreed with Butler. Indoor farming can be viable for high value, short shelf life crops like vegetables. I don’t see how you could get sufficient productivity on grain or pulse crops to justify the energy and material expenses of indoor facilities. Grains and pulses have long (years) shelf lives so facilities like national grain reserves built up in good years are likely to be much more effective ways to maintain food security.

  4. says

    I’m not proposing we move grain indoors, for the most part. I’m proposing we find alternatives. I’m assuming some crops will still be grown outdoors, but relying on that is going to be an increasingly risky proposition going forward.

    Given that we’re currently on trajectory for what looks like centuries of warming, I don’t think simply storing more grain is likely to be a viable solution to ever more-frequent crop failures. It feels like planning to rebuild cities every time they get wrecked by a hurricane, rather than working to make them more flood-proof or to move people away from the coasts.

    I think it’s also worth noting that almost half the grain we grow today goes to feeding livestock, which is far from the most efficient way to get everyone the protein they need. There’s no question that I’m proposing big changes, but as I keep saying, we can’t avoid big changes, on our current trajectory, and it’s better to plan ahead, to whatever degree we can.

  5. says

    I guess I did say “all food production” in the context of a magical wish, but I see that more as a goal to work towards, to see how far we can get. For staple carbohydrates, I was thinking more along the lines of bacterial flour.

  6. planter says

    Agreed that for basic carbohydrate/edible oil/protein products any process that uses the fastest growing, simplest organisms would work best in an indoor industrial setting. Until such processes are working at scale, ensuring that there are large stores of non-commercial grain stocks globally is very important. Ideally these would managed with the goal of avoiding famine rather than maximizing profit.

  7. says

    Yes. Hence my sense of urgency. There are people working on this stuff, but I think it’s very reasonable to assume that there will be problems with stuff like fungal and bacterial (from the wrong kind of bacteria) contamination, and so I’d rather us find and figure out those problems BEFORE we’re dependent on those newer sorts of food.

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