BiofuelsFood ShortagesGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeSoil Erosion & Contamination

Empty Promise

Could scientists have got the impacts of climate change on food supply wildly wrong?

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

I believe we might have made a mistake: a mistake whose consequences, if I am right, would be hard to overstate. I think the forecasts for world food production could be entirely wrong.

Food prices are rising again, partly because of the damage done to crops in the northern hemisphere by ferocious weather. In the US, Russia and Ukraine, grain crops were clobbered by remarkable droughts. In parts of northern Europe, such as the UK, they were were pummelled by endless rain.

Even so, this is not, as a report in the Guardian claimed last week, “one of the worst global harvests in years”(1). It’s one of the best. World grain production last year was the highest on record; this year’s crop is just 2.6% smaller(2). The problem is that, thanks to the combination of a rising population and the immoral diversion of so much grain into animal feed and biofuels(3), a new record must be set every year. Though 2012’s is the third biggest global harvest in history (after 2011 and 2008)(4), this is also a year of food deficit, in which we will consume some 28 million tonnes more grain than farmers produced(5). If 2013’s harvest does not establish a new world record, the poor are in serious trouble.

So the question of how climate change might alter food production could not be more significant. It is also extremely hard to resolve, and relies on such daunting instruments as “multinomial endogenous switching regression models”(6). The problem is that there are so many factors involved. Will extra rainfall be cancelled out by extra evaporation? Will the fertilising effect of carbon dioxide be more powerful than the heat damage it causes? To what extent will farmers be able to adapt? Will new varieties of crops keep up with the changing weather?

But, to put it very broadly, the consensus is that climate change will hurt farmers in the tropics and help farmers in temperate countries. A famous paper published in 2005 concluded that if we follow the most extreme trajectory for greenhouse gas production (the one we happen to be on at the moment), global warming would raise harvests in the rich nations by 3% by the 2080s, and reduce them in the poor nations by 7%(7). This gives an overall reduction in the world’s food supply (by comparison to what would have happened without manmade climate change) of 5%.

Papers published since then support this conclusion: they foresee hard times for farmers in Africa and South Asia(8,9,10), but a bonanza for farmers in the colder parts of the world(11,12,13), whose yields will rise just as developing countries become less able to feed themselves. Climate change is likely to be devastating for many of the world’s poor. If farmers in developing countries can’t compete, both their income and their food security will decline, and the number of permanently malnourished people could rise. The nations in which they live, much of whose growth was supposed to have come from food production, will have to import more of their food from abroad. But in terms of gross commodity flows the models do not predict an insuperable problem.

So here’s where the issue arises. The models used by most of these papers forecast the effects of changes in averaged conditions. They take no account of extreme weather events(14,15). Fair enough: they’re complicated enough already. But what if changes in the size of the global harvest are determined less by average conditions than by the extremes?

This is what happened in 2012. This is what seems likely to happen in subsequent years. Here’s why. A paper this year by the world’s leading climate scientist James Hansen shows that the frequency of extremely hot events (such as the droughts which hammered the US and Russia) has risen by a factor of around 50 by comparison to the decades before 1980(16). Forty years ago, extreme summer heat typically affected between 0.1 and 0.2% of the globe. Today it scorches some 10%. “We can project with a high degree of confidence,” the paper warns, “that the area covered by extremely hot anomalies will continue to increase during the next few decades and even greater extremes will occur.” Yet these extremes do not feature in the standard models predicting changes in crop production.

If the mechanism proposed by another paper is correct, it is not just extremes of heat that are likely to rise(17). I’ve explained this before, but I think it’s worth repeating. The jet stream is a current of air travelling eastwards around the upper northern hemisphere. It separates the cold wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Wobbling along this ribbon are huge meanders called Rossby waves. As the Arctic heats up, the meanders slow down and become steeper. The weather gets stuck.

Stuck weather is another way of saying extreme weather. If the jet stream is jammed to the north of where you are, the weather stays hot and dry, and the temperature builds up – and up. If it’s lodged to the south of you, the rain keeps falling, the ground becomes saturated and the rivers burst their banks. This summer the UK and the US seem to have found themselves on opposite sides of stuck meanders, and harvests in both countries were savaged by opposing extremes of weather.

This is where we stand with just 0.8 degrees of global warming and a 30% loss of summer sea ice. Picture a world with 2, 4 or 6 degrees of warming and a pole without ice, and you get some idea of what could be coming.

Farmers in the rich nations can adapt to a change in averaged conditions. It is hard to see how they can adapt to extreme events, especially if those events are different every year. Last winter, for example, I spent days drought-proofing my apple trees, as the previous spring had been so dry that – a few weeks after pollination – most of the fruit shrivelled up and died. This spring was so wet that the pollinators scarcely emerged at all: it was the unfertilised blossom that withered and died. I thanked my stars that I don’t make my living this way.

Perhaps there is no normal any more. Perhaps the smooth average warming trends the climate models predict – simultaneously terrifying and oddly reassuring – mask wild extremes for which no farmer can plan and to which no farmer can respond. Where does that leave a world which must either keep raising production or starve?


  7. Martin Parry, Cynthia Rosenzweig and Matthew Livermore, 2005. Climate change, global food supply and risk of hunger. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – B, vol 360, pp 2125–2138. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1751
  8. Eg Jerry Knox, Tim Hess, Andre Daccache and Tim Wheeler, 2012. Climate change impacts on crop productivity in Africa and South Asia. Environmental Research Letters 7. 034032. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034032
  9. Christoph Müller et al, 2012. Climate change risks for African agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
  10. P. Krishnan et al, 2011. High temperature effects on rice growth, yield, and grain quality. Advances in Agronomy. Vol 111, pp87-205.
  11. Jan Beck, 2012. Predicting climate change effects on agriculture from ecological niche modeling: who profits, who loses? Climatic Change – published online.
  12. Tom Osborne, Gillian Rose and Tim Wheeler, 2012 (in press). Variation in the global-scale impacts of climate change on crop productivity due to climate model uncertainty and adaptation. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology.
  13. Kyungsuk Cho et al, 2012. Winter wheat yields in the UK: uncertainties in
    climate and management impacts. Climate Research. Vol. 54, pp49–68.
    doi: 10.3354/cr01085
  14. Eg Martin Parry, Cynthia Rosenzweig and Matthew Livermore, 2005 (as above) write: “The crop growth models embody a number of simplifications. For example, weeds, diseases and insect pests are assumed to be controlled, there are no problem soil conditions (e.g. high salinity or acidity) and there are no extreme weather events such as heavy storms.”
  15. and Kyungsuk Cho et al, 2012 (as above) state: “We do not include effects caused
    by negative soil conditions such as salinity, acidity and compaction, extreme weather events or pests and diseases, all of which are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by climate change and resulting changes in management practices.”
  16. James Hansen, Makiko Satoa, Reto Ruedy, 2012. Perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online.
  17. Jennifer A. Francis and Stephen J. Vavrus, 2012. Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000.


  1. “Perhaps the smooth average warming trends the climate models predict”

    That is precisely what is happening/will continue to happen, and a major reason why the general public doesn’t really believe +2C warming (or even more) is a ‘big deal’ – they think the temps will be uniformly +2C warmer every day around the year, which we know is not going to happen. Instead we’ll just get increasing extremes and it’s fair to say no politician has understood the implications this has for things like food production.

  2. The concept of permaculture tends to be applied in the form of “Study what nature does, emulate and accelerate the stuff you like and when you don’t get the results you want, study nature again to figure out what you missed.” It seems to be a very “if we understand a system we can do what it does… only better” mindset.

    I’ve noticed that Permaculture minded people have a tendency to think that without proper planning, control and input all systems will head toward Entropy. However many of the systems we study tend to already have controls and inputs that adjust the system to handle new stresses.

    This article seems to ignore the fact that our food production doesn’t just have to be “large farms.” Ironically, the thing that this article is warning of the possibility of, might be the best thing to happen to small scale agriculture in the last two generations and might end up providing hundreds of millions of jobs.

    For a long time it has been easier to leverage the extraordinary efficiencies of “conventional farming” to buy cheap food with money earned from a Job. However, if farms stop being able to supply the complete food needs of people at a “reasonable price” people will start growing their own food again…

    High prices that lead to food riots are a solution to a challenge of disconnection from our food supply and acceptance of monopolistic laws supporting “conventional farming” corporations. Sure proper planning can help change hurt less, but the larger the system, the harder it is to try to exert the level of influence necessary to adjust the entire system. Usually we only have the necessary resources to adjust how the system will effect us and our loved ones personally.

    I am a rich American, if food prices double or triple it will still be a small percentage of my income. It doesn’t make sense for me to shift my personal efforts from my primary career even in that case. However, at some point it might make sense for me to hire someone to farm my front and back yards.

    10 years ago I designed an organization called the “urban farmers alliance” which works with homeowners to farm their yards in trade for multi-year agreements of a large percentage of the produce. However, the prices of food were too low to be able to reasonably compete (I wasn’t willing to assume on the stability of the “organic premium”… arguably a mistake). If prices merely double, suddenly this 10 year old idea makes financial sense and would be ready to provide local jobs, food and, correspondingly, stability.

    I guess I’m just asking… please remember that those dark clouds on the horizon are likely bringing the rain we need alongside the scary wind and thunder.

  3. @Scott, I think you’re comments (while interesting) don’t exactly address the main problem that George is pointing out in his article – that with increased climate change we have (put simply) a less predictable climate with greater frequency of extreme weather events.

    Practicing permaculture will undoubtably increase our resilience however there is a genuine risk that the climate may change faster than the species we have selected will be able to cope with. We observe nature and make predictions based on what we know about our climate – i.e. what it has traditionally been like – so can end up in trouble.

    You;re right that ‘large scale agriculture’ and grain crops are indeed not the only way to produce food (as I’m sure we all on this site recognise) however the greatest concern however is that (if the unpredictability were to get worse) how many food producing species would we have that could tolerate a greater frequency of frost and drought and flood and heavy winds – perhaps in quick succession? Would we still have ‘seasons’ (as we understand them) in any meaningful way?

    While the worst case scenario may well be some time off, it is worth remembering that (as George points out) the climate may not just get warmer in lovely climate zone-extending fashion but instead threaten our ability to produce food on the scale that we can now (even with permaculture) as the climate’s instability makes for confusing times for plants that are used to a reasonable amount of predictability (or at least slow rate of change) when it comes to flowering, fruiting etc..

  4. @shane. I think you are correct about the main intent being to point out the risk of extreme weather systems increasing. I must have completely skimmed over his points concerning the jetstream toward the end….

    I still think my points have a place, but tone, focus and methodology should have been different. :-)

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