Stanford University researchers recently published a study in Science Express showing how global warming has put a damper on grain crops over the last 30 years.
The study was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The paper’s lead author is David Lobell of the Stanford Program on Food Security and Environment. He was assisted by Wolfram Schlenker, assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and a Cargill visiting fellow, and Justin Costa-Roberts, a Stanford U undergraduate.
Science Express is a publication of Science, a journal dedicated to original scientific research, global news and commentary. The study, which indicates that wheat harvests over the period are lower by 5.5 percent and corn by 4 percent, are calculated using what researchers call a “climate stable” model; that is, extrapolating how much wheat and corn would have been harvested based on pre-1980 temperature and harvest figures extracted from data kept by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the University of Delaware, the University of Wisconsin, and McGill University.
The biggest losers in the wheat venue were Russia, India and France – a Russian loss that may in part be due to last year’s wildfires. The biggest corn losers were China and Brazil, nations that rank second and third in global corn consumption. This is particularly bad news for them.
Fortunately for those of us living in North America (Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), the decline has not been quite so catastrophic. In fact, the U.S. – the world’s largest producer of soybeans and corn – saw very few impacts, with corn harvests from 2005 through 2010 showing their largest yields in history. In 2009-2010, this amounted to 13 billion bushels. Wheat is setting similar records, with 1.485 billion bushels harvested in 2009-2010 (though production is expected to decline in 2010-2011 due to dry Kansas weather).
The fact that North America and the U.S. in particular aren’t seeing crop declines due to global warming, however, may be the worst possible news on the environmental homefront. As with any disease, we don’t always realize we are sick until we start to suffer. Only when that happens are we willing to consider a cure, even a painful one – and this is true for nations just as it is for people.
The U.S. has so far refused to “take the cure”, opting out of ratifying the Kyoto Accord, even though it is the largest global source of carbon dioxide, or CO2, the greenhouse gas most implicated in global warming (also called climate change).
The U.S. was equally recalcitrant at the COP16 (the 16th edition of Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP), held in Cancun, Mexico, as it was at the previous COP15 held in Copenhagen, Denmark. In fact, these two climate conferences delivered such a watered-down message on climate change, thanks to U.S. manipulations, that the Bolivians actually walked out of COP16 in disgust.
As perverse as it sounds, some environmentalists actually hope that global warming will soon begin to have an equal impact on industrialized nations, so that correcting the problem can get underway in a truly meaningful fashion, instead of the shoddy and rather duplicitous behavior so far engaged in. And as environmental journalist Stephen Leahy noted last year, these nations’ belief – that they can adapt to global warming (rather than altering their behaviors to prevent or delay it) – may be the final nail in the climate coffin for poorer nations, which have neither the financing nor the manpower to do the same.
Moreover, as a book by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo on third world poverty shows, the food-safety margin between those called “poor” and those one step up the economic ladder is oftentimes a matter of a $1 per day – a margin that is far too thin as global warming propels the globe into a hungrier world.
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