Is it hot in here or is it just climate change?

02/25/2010 06:11:19 AM
Tom Karst

 The reason this is important is that over the past 30 years, most of my colleagues in plant sciences have turned away from working on crops. And that’s because they can’t afford the expense or time to go through the regulatory apparatus and get things out to farmers in the way that they have done over the history of our extension system and our land grant university system. So I think that’s one of the challenges. Not all crops will be developed by biotech companies, and we need to develop mechanisms that will allow our public sector scientists to get crops to farmers.

 Now when Malthus was writing his essay, the population of the world was somewhere around a billion. By the middle of the 20th century, the population had tripled, and between the middle and the end it doubled again. We are now approaching seven billion. Amazingly enough, the population growth from 3 to 6 billion was accompanied by a reduction in the fraction of hungry people on the face of the earth from half to a sixth, because of the success of scientific agriculture.

Now the population experts are telling us that we need to anticipate the addition of some 3 billion more people to the population of the earth. Here’s a sobering factoid. The amount of arable land on the face of the earth hasn’t changed appreciably, not much more than 10 percent, over the past half century, and it’s not likely to increase in the future because we are losing it to desertification, urbanization, salinization as fast as we are adding it.

 The food crisis of 2008 wasn’t a crisis in the usual sense. It was a tipping point, perhaps a harbinger of things to come. We must also begin to think about the impact of climate change on agriculture. It’s just beginning to be factored into our projections. The yellow line indicates the general temperature range over our major crop plants evolved. I draw your attention to the “x,” which marks a historical temperature anomaly. That was the
summer of 2003, which was much hotter than the average over the last hundred years. If the climate projections are right, it will be an average summer a few decades from now, and by the end of the century it’s going to be a cool summer.

Let’s look a little more closely at it. These are temperature statistics from France showing deviations from the average for the past 100 years, and you can see the 2003 is an outlier. The average temperature was 3.5 degrees above normal, although rainfall was normal. We all heard about the 30,000 to 50,000 people that died, but what we didn’t hear about was the 20 to 36 percent reduction in fruit and grain yields.


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