Commentary: Food security, climate and the rest of the story

A new United Nations climate report warns global food security is under threat from warming temperatures making food scarcer, and more expensive. The recommended solutions include using no-till and targeted fertilizer use in farming, reducing food waste, and human diet changes to less red meat. Specific claims of climate change damage are:

• Deserts are growing

• Forests are more vulnerable to drought, pests, and forest fires

• Crop protein, and nutrient levels are falling

As usual, claims by the UN are dubious. Improved farming practices, and food delivery have been critical to increasing food production as the global population has grown. Those practices come at a cost.

In developed countries, computerized farming is widespread directing tilling, planting, fertilizing, and irrigating. Tractors, control systems, weed killers, fertilizers, and irrigation are capital intensive. Food waste in poor countries can be as high as 30 percent. Reducing waste requires better packaging, refrigeration, and more efficient transportation. So, waste reduction also requires investment in better roads, trucks, refrigeration, and packaging equipment. That capital is not available in poor countries. Creating all the products, and processes needed to improve food security also requires the availability of low-cost, reliable energy.

David T. Stevenson

Developed countries have had access to low-cost reliable energy through widespread use of coal, oil, and natural gas. The growth of wealth, and capital formation is highly correlated with energy use. Poor countries need to follow a similar path to have the resources to improve food security. Unfortunately, the wind and solar power favored by the UN does not provide low-cost or reliable energy. Fast growing countries like China and India are following the same energy-use patterns we have seen in North America, and Europe. It would be immoral to limit the world’s poor countries from following the path well worn by developed countries.

Use of conventional energy sources results in increased emissions of carbon dioxide which can lead to rising temperatures. The best evidence shows doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide may increase global temperatures by a modest one degree centigrade.

Fortunately, you may remember from high school biology, plants absorb carbon dioxide and photosynthesize it to carbon based plant food, and release the oxygen we breathe. Numerous studies show higher levels of carbon dioxide lead to increased plant growth, a fact even the UN study acknowledges. In fact, greenhouse growers around the world often add carbon dioxide to boost production.

Doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide may increase global crop production five to seventy-five percent, depending on the crop. Faster crop growth will require additional fertilization to support the growth and to maintain food nutrition. Read the publication, “What Rising CO2 Means for Global Food Security” from the CO2 Coalition for a detailed review of this topic.

NASA satellites show global greening of between 6 and 13 percent since the 1980s, with the fastest growth in places like sub-Saharan Africa. Deserts are shrinking, not growing. The same studies showing faster plant growth show plants using water more efficiently. Plants become more drought resistant in the presence of higher carbon dioxide levels.

Poor forest management practices have a much larger impact on pest infestations, and wild fires than increased carbon dioxide levels have. Lack of logging, and thinning have led to large increases in tree density. Infestations spread easier, and forest fires burn hotter with more fuel and pest-killed trees.

We note the UN study neglects to say how their recommendations will be met. Simply put, food security in the future will be tied to more energy use in developing countries, and capital investment made available through that energy use. That will lead to the better agricultural practices, and food waste reduction called for by the United Nations. The value of better food security will more than offset the cost of the modest adaptations needed to deal with modestly higher global temperatures.

David T. Stevenson is policy director for the Caesar Rodney Institute is a Delaware-based nonprofit organization whose mission is “to promote social, political and economic freedom.”

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