Does Climate Change Threaten the Global Food Supply?
Mainstream media tell us climate change has increased droughts and extreme heat events. (It hasn’t.) These, they say, reduce crop yields. For Christians concerned about poverty and hunger, this is an important issue.
What does hard data say?
Farmers are breaking all-time records for productivity. India for example, has produced record food crop output for three years in a row. The global picture is similar. World wheat production in 2020–21 will set a new record of around 768.49 million tons.
How do you make sense of these contradictions? Is climate change a real threat to our agricultural systems? And why are crop outputs increasing drastically?
The Usual Media Narrative
The mainstream media mislead people about the relationship between climate change and agriculture.
Consider just three typical headlines in 2019. The New York Times ran “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns.” The Wire, based in India, made a similar claim in “Climate Change Poses Serious Threats to India’s Food Security.” A humanitarian organization posted “How Climate Change Threatens Food Security — And Why We’re All At Risk.”
Few people investigate these claims. But hard data tells a different story. Agricultural systems are faring well under the increased 21st-century temperatures.
The Reality: Booming Agriculture and Record Crop Output
Yields of all major fruits, vegetables, and other food crops increased during the past six decades. Land required to produce a fixed quantity of food fell 30% from 1961 to 2014.
Improvement over the longer term is greater. In Europe, crop yields were well below 2 tons/hectare in 1850. By 2014, all major Western European economies produced much more. Seven countries produced over 5 tons per hectare. In the U.S., maize (corn) yields were just 1.63 tons per hectare in 1866; by 2014 they were 10.73 tons.
Climate Change and Carbon Dioxide Played Key Roles in the Increase
There are many reasons for the increased productivity. The revolution in agricultural technology and the use of crop enhancers are two. Tractors, drip irrigation, and other tools boosted farming efficiency. Fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic editing made crops more resilient to diseases. Their yields exceeded those of original wild varieties.
But two key environmental factors also helped. One is global warming. The other is higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.
Much of the Northern Hemisphere struggled during the Little Ice Age in the 17th century. Crop outputs dwindled, bringing chaos and misery. Global temperature rose gradually after the 18th century. Today plants enjoy far better climatic conditions all across the globe.
Likewise, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) during the past two centuries has benefited plants. Global atmospheric CO2 is now around 414 ppm. It was about 280 three centuries ago. The positive CO2-plant growth relationship is well established. It is a key element in greenhouse farming. CO2 levels as high as 1300 parts per million (ppm) are recommended for greenhouses.
You won’t often hear about it, but peer-reviewed studies attest the positive impact of modern temperature and CO2 concentration on plant growth. Results show up in crop outputs. Moreover, biotechnology produces new crop varieties that can withstand new temperature conditions.
Crop responses during the past seven decades — even with global warming — augur continued agricultural success.
Inexpensive, Reliable Energy is Crucial
Does climate change threaten the global food supply? No. Biotechnology and other agricultural improvements will offset any adverse climatic influences.
But mandatory replacement of abundant, affordable, reliable energy from fossil fuels with scarce, expensive, unreliable energy from wind and solar — prescribed to fight climate change — does. Inexpensive, reliable energy is crucial to all agriculture. Wind and solar can’t match coal, oil, and natural gas in providing it. Those who care about feeding the world’s poor need to understand this.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.