The Threat of Climate Change

December 9, 2015 02:45 AM
The Threat of Climate Change

Cargill’s executive director says agriculture must adapt to the risks posed by a changing climate

Agriculture faces a daunting challenge over the next 35 years to produce the food needed by 9.5 billion people as our resources and ability to utilize them will be threatened by climate change.

That’s the message Cargill’s executive director Greg Page delivered at the second Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture at Kansas State University. Specifically, Page said climate change must be addressed to prevent future food shortages.

“The challenge itself is clear,” Page said. “We have to figure out how to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050, a group that not only will be much larger, but also wealthier and more urban. We will have to do so with heightened attention to sustainability and respect for the planet’s natural limits. And to make matters even more complicated, we will have to learn to grow that extra food in the face of a range of possible impacts from climate change.” 

Page acknowledged climate change is “not a particularly popular subject in much of the heartland. But at Cargill, we have come to believe that it is important to have serious conversations about what we can do now to accommodate a range of climate scenarios and for agriculture to take part in those conversations and in making reasonable preparations.”

Cargill, celebrating its 150th anniversary, has faced many challenges since investing in a small grain elevator in Conover, Iowa, in 1865, Page said. Today, the company has 65 businesses operating in 68 countries. “Like everyone in this industry, we learned early that markets are always changing … and we must adapt.”

Agriculture must adapt to climate change, too, Page said. He co-chaired a group of business leaders who investigated the economic risks posed by various climate change scenarios. They concluded farmers in northern states would benefit from a longer growing season, but that would be more than offset by lost production in the South. The group published a report, “Risky Business, The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.” 

The report suggests that “without agricultural adaptation, U.S. production of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton could decline by 14% by mid-century and by as much as 42% by late century,” Page said.

Facing a climate that is likely to be become warmer, wetter in some places, drier in others and more prone to extremes everywhere, Page asked the audience: “How do we preserve and enhance the resilience and adaptive capacity of the global food system?”

Page proposed four things future generations must do better:

1. Embrace the signaling power of price.

“The foundation of sustainable agriculture is a price adequate to reward farmers for their efforts. This is as true for commercial smallholder farmers in developing parts of the world as it is for large scale producers,” Page said.

“Prices are potent fertilizer, signaling and motivating farmers to produce more when the market calls for it. We mask these signals with subsidies, tariffs and other market-distorting mechanisms at our peril.”

2. Honor comparative advantage and enable open trade.

“The world’s farmers will produce the most food in the most economically- and environmentally-sound ways when they cultivate the crops best suited for their particular growing conditions and trade the resulting surpluses with others,” Page said.

“Food self-sufficiency, a tempting idea, is not the path to food security.  But we default to it too readily.”

 3. Pursue sustainable practice intensification. 

“The world’s farmers have doubled the amount of grains, rice and oilseeds they have produced since 1975—without putting much new land in cultivation,” Page said.

“We will continue to need to deliver yield increases primarily from productivity improvements. The alternative is to further encroach on the world’s native forests and wetlands. This is entirely possible … but not if we turn our backs on proven technologies that enable farmers to produce more with less water, less fertilizer, fewer herbicides and pesticides and less tillage.”

4. Tackle climate change head on. 

“Devilishly difficult challenge … a problem ‘politics is almost designed not to solve,’ according to Jonathan Chait, given costs that lie mostly in the distant future and solutions that require coordination across scores of countries with wildly disparate economies, agendas and political structure,” Page said. 

“Bill Gates has pointed out on more than one occasion that 90% of what wealthy nations are spending today on carbon-free energy goes into subsidizing things that won’t solve the challenge and only 10% on basic research into technologies that might truly work,” he added. 

“Risky Business” co-founder Tom Steyer called climate change “the transcendent issue for our generation.” The “profound question it begs,” Page said, “is how … and how much to spend against an uncertain outcome. That is the essence of risk management.”

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