Monthly Archives: May 2015

How will climate change affect the world food system?

I wrote this article for the blog of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), celebrating its 40th anniversary. The goal was to present a key research topic through the years from the personal perspective of the researcher. This article appeared May 4, 2015. Below, I present a few key paragraphs, and a link to the full article. — Tim Thomas

Long before I joined IFPRI, I served in the U.S. Navy. One of the first lessons I learned in my naval training was how to avoid running into − or being run into by − another ship. You would think it would be pretty simple to avoid, but the trouble is that ships don’t turn very fast nor do they stop instantly. What’s more, on the ocean there are no lane markings to keep ships separated (except for buoys in channels). It turns out that without a simple rule of thumb, keeping two large vessels on different trajectories from running into each other isn’t always straightforward. Fortunately for ships, such a rule exists: if the other ship is on a constant bearing relative to your position and the range is decreasing, you’re going to collide unless somebody changes course or speed − and generally speaking, the sooner the better. Keeping your focus in the right place helps you figure this out.

It’s similar in regard to determining how climate change will affect the world food system. Many things are moving in different directions and speeds at the same time and, if you focus on the wrong thing, you’re going to draw the wrong conclusion. For example, we use crop models together with climate models to determine how much production is going to be hindered by the changing climate, all other things being equal. We generally find that the direct climate impact is negative and sometimes quite large. For example, some of the models suggest that climate change will reduce the productivity of corn in the U.S. by up to 40 percent by 2050. Since the U.S. is the leading corn producer, and since other major producers should be similarly affected, this is a big deal. Focusing on this number, however, as some people do, would lead to a very frightening conclusion. Add on top of that an expanding global population that will be a third larger in 2050 than it is today, and you would think that global food security is in an even more dire condition.

Yet what has been overlooked in all of this is the fact that maize yields have grown globally around 2 percent per year during the past forty years, without a sign of slowing down — and this is all despite the impacts of climate change already being felt. Furthermore, maize production in the last 20 years has grown even faster − at 3 percent per year − because expanding yields also have coincided with expanded harvested area. So while climate change creates a tremendous drag on what could have been − the yields we would experience without climate change − agricultural productivity gains due to technological innovations such as high yield maize varieties and nitrogen-based fertilizers together with expanding production areas have compensated. They will most certainly continue to compensate in the future, though probably with less effectiveness as the intensity of climate change grows.

Continue reading at the IFPRI blog

Climate-Smart Eating: Saving the Planet, One Person at a Time

I wrote this article for Huffington Post, and it appeared February 10, 2015. Below, I present a few key paragraphs, and a link to the full article. — Tim Thomas

I think the Chick-fil-A cow is onto something. You know, the cow that holds up the sign, “Eat mor chikin.” I think that cow is thinking about ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and realizes that an easy way to cut emissions from beef consumption by a minimum of 94 percent (and maybe as high as 99 percent) is to switch to eating chicken.

The Chick-fil-A cow could become the first spokes-animal for what could become an extremely important movement that might be dubbed “climate-smart eating,” a sort of mash-up of climate-smart agriculture (launched in 2014 at the UN Climate Summit in New York) and the reduced carbon footprint movement.

Climate-smart eating recognizes that the GHG emissions of what we choose to eat can vary widely, and since GHG emissions associated with the food we eat is estimated at between 44 and 57 percent of total planetary emissions (according to the non-governmental organization, GRAIN, and published by The Wall Street Journal and by the UN), people’s choices concerning the food they eat has the potential to make a huge difference in how much GHGs are emitted. Good choices will serve to slow the rate of climate change, and will ultimately reduce the extent of the damage associated with that change.

While climate-smart agriculture (CSA) tries to get farmers to change how they grow things, climate-smart eating (CSE) seeks to change WHAT they grow, by changing the structure of demand for their products. CSE together with CSA could be the one-two punch on climate mitigation–the process of reducing GHG emissions. The idea of climate-smart eating is starting to catch on, evidenced by its inclusion in the latest report from a United Nations panel, though under a less catchy name, “demand-side options” for mitigation.

Not all of us are farmers, but all of us are eaters. CSA mobilizes farmers; CSE mobilizes the world — and that is critical if goals for GHG reductions are to be met. Climate-smart eating, as a movement, encourages each person to voluntarily help save the planet by reducing the GHG content of the food he or she chooses to eat. Not only could we choose to “eat mor chikin,” but we could reduce some of our meat consumption, since grains, fruits, and vegetables almost always take less GHG emissions to produce. We could consider the emissions from transporting the food to our grocery stores, and buy more locally when possible. And we could do our part to reduce waste by not buying more than needed and saving and eating leftovers. Food discarded is like multiplying the GHG emissions taken to produce food that is actually consumed. And, as mentioned, we could care more about HOW our food was produced — did it use climate-smart agricultural techniques?

Continue reading at Huffington Post