A World Food Crisis?
Forecasting world famines has become a favorite pastime for some: from the Reverend Thomas Malthus and more recently Paul Ehrlich to the Club of Rome and the Paddock brothers in the 1970s -- and of course, to Lester Brown, about once every decade. The latest disaster forecast comes to us from climate alarmists who focus on a world food crisis, supposedly as a consequence of global warming (GW). While there may well arise problems about world food, it is more than likely that a global warming -- if it does take place -- will increase food production rather than lower it. So rest easy: another crisis averted.
The main cause cited for a decrease is loss of soil moisture; but it should be obvious that any increase in global temperature will also increase evaporation from the oceans and therefore the total amount of global precipitation. GW is a perfect recipe for creating more fresh water, which according to the alarmists is badly needed. Of course, we cannot be sure where this precipitation will come down -- but neither can the alarmists. Sadly, our climate models are inadequate to handle regional problems -- and particularly bad when it comes to predicting precipitation.
Another reason for increased food production stems from the warmer temperatures themselves. Again, according to climate models, an increase in average global temperature points toward only a slight increase in the tropical zone -- with the major increases in higher latitudes, where climates tend to be more severe. (That of course is a common problem when one deals with averages.) So it may turn out that Canada and Siberia will see increases in crop production because of longer growing seasons, warmer growing temperatures, and fewer frosts -- but there will be little change at lower latitudes.
The final reason for improvements in agriculture stems of course from the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide -- irrespective of its putative effects on climate. Carbon dioxide will continue to increase because of the burning of fossil fuels to create energy. The rate of future increase is not known with any degree of certainty; it depends on population growth, changes in economic activity, technology, and other factors.
But CO2 is plant food and a natural fertilizer. Countless experiments conducted by agriculturalists in different nations have established that increased CO2 levels not only speed up plant growth of crops and forests, but enable plants to do better under stressed conditions of drought, pollution, and attacks by insects and fungi.
Economists tell us that the problem of world hunger has to do mostly with the distribution of food resources rather than the total amount of production. Ultimately, it becomes a problem of having money to buy the food that is needed and having money to establish the transportation systems necessary to bring food from farms into the urban areas that people have moved to and will be moving to in the future.
Economics also tells us that there is a considerable cushion: consumption of meat. As grain prices rise because of scarcity, so will the price of grain-fed animals. But a higher price of meat will dampen the expected growing demand and so release more grain for direct human consumption.
But aside from these economic factors, the total amount of food available to hungry people can also be increased by better protection of the resource itself. Genetic Modification (GM) is developing food varieties that are resistant to water shortages and resistant to pests; but some nations are still resisting even while their people go hungry. (Kenya has just dropped its ban against GM crops.) In the meantime, the judicious application of chemical pesticides can help in preserving the food resource. Of great importance also is the use of fumigants, like methyl bromide, to protect grains against vermin and fungus. Improper storage and spoilage in shipping imposes huge losses and creates economic inefficiencies.
The world has done quite well in avoiding the anticipated Malthusian catastrophe for the past 200 years -- as population increased manifold -- from about one to more than six billion. All indications are that population growth is slowing down and that levels will peak well below ten billion within the next few decades. There is every reason therefore to view the world food problem with optimism.
Atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer is Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and founding director of the US Weather Satellite Service. He is a Senior Fellow of the Heartland Institute and The Independent Institute. His book Unstoppable Global Warming - Every 1500 Years (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) presents the evidence for natural climate cycles of warming and cooling and became a New York Times best-seller. He is the organizer and chairman of NIPCC (Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change), whose reports reach conclusions that contradict those of the UN-supported IPCC. Other books he has written or edited, including a monograph on the price of world oil, deal with energy and similar resource topics. He is co-author and editor of "Is There an Optimum Level of Population?"