Feeding the World in a Warming World—A New Reason Report


My colleague Julian Morris, the vice-president for research at the Reason Foundation, along with Ohio State University natural resource economist Douglas Southgate have issued a new report, Weathering Global Warming in Agriculture [PDF]. Global warming will clearly affect what, how, and where farmers will grow food in the future as rainfall and temperature patterns shift. Will farmers be able to keep up with any changes in the weather and provide the food that 9 billion people will need by 2050? Yes, according to the new report, if they are allowed to adapt and trade. 

Interestingly, the report highlights the fact that a lot of the projections for future agricultural production assume that farmers will be using pretty much the same technologies and growing the same crop varieties in the same areas as they do now. It's like assuming that person will allow themselves to be drowned by standing still in a rising tide. 

In fact, during the last half century, farmers around the globe have proven themselves highly adaptable if given the chance. As the world's population burgeoned, food production more than kept up: 

…mainly thanks to technological advances during and since the Green Revolution that have caused global yields of cereals (which comprise at least 60 percent of the human diet if the grain consumed by livestock is taken into account) to rise by 150 percent since the early 1960s.

The general tendency of food supplies to overwhelm food demand has registered in the marketplace. Corrected for inflation, prices of corn, rice and wheat declined by approximately 75 percent between 1950 and the middle 1980s, and then remained at historically low levels for another two decades. Food prices spiked in 2007 and 2008 due to rising agricultural production costs resulting from higher energy prices, expanded conversion of corn and other crops into biofuels, and export restrictions implemented by nations such as Argentina, Ukraine and Vietnam. However, markets soon returned to normal, with prices in late 2008 a little above what they had been before the spike.

Occasional upswings like those of 2007 and 2008 notwithstanding, food prices can remain at current levels or even decline further in the years to come. For example, the World Bank anticipates a deceleration of demand growth, mainly because population increases will dwindle as human fertility continues to decline and because the rate of growth for grain consumption per capita promises to slow down in emerging economies. In addition, ample opportunities remain for boosting production. Under the Bank's baseline scenario, real food prices should be slightly below current levels in 2050, when human numbers will be at around nine billion and close to stabilizing.

What needs to be done in the future? As the report spells out, reforms must be taken to privatize and market price irrigation water, stop agricultural subsidies and end trade barriers, and allow farmers to adopt new crop varieties including those developed by biotechnology. 

The report concludes: 

If agriculture suffers because of climate change, the fault will lie not with underlying environmental scarcity, but rather with the absence of reforms such as these—reforms for which the case could hardly be more compelling.