A polar bear is the perfect example of “Charismatic Megafauna” – the kind of animal whose image can easily be used to generate sympathy. I care about polar bears as much as anyone, but I’m a little concerned about how images of animals like this are being used to promote Climate Change awareness and to fund-raise for environmental organizations. If we are going to make the personal life-style changes, the new business strategies, and the public policy decisions to counter this threat, we need to do it with a clear-eyed understanding of what is at stake. The “faces” we should be thinking about are those of starving people in poor nations.
You may remember back in 2007/8 there was a sudden spike in grain prices. Stores of wheat and rice were very short around the world. Countries were putting on export bans and there were food riots in places like Haiti and Egypt. Some nations like Korea decided they needed to develop dedicated crop production areas exclusively for their national import supply. What had caused this was a “perfect storm” of five factors. The one that got the most attention was Biofuel expansion. Indeed ~20% of the US corn crop was going to ethanol (though few commentators realized that 40% of that amount goes back into the animal feed market as DDGS). Of course world population was continuing to grow and the rising standard of living of middle classes in places like China and India was putting more pressure on food supplies. High energy costs were discouraging some farmers from planting or fertilizing as much as they would have. Finally, an extended drought in Australia was lowering its contribution to the grain trade. The current global recession has eased the supply issue for now, but it is poised to return.
The Challenge Ahead
Between population growth and economic development, it is estimated that by mid-century we will need twice as much food as we produce today. There will be the added challenge of the effects of climate change that makes crop yield more unpredictable. Extremes of drought or flooding are expected with greater frequency. The problem will be most acute in the areas of the world that are already the poorest. This is not an insurmountable challenge, but it will require our best application of technological innovation to be able to do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable. Fortunately there are some new, biotechnology-derived, drought tolerance traits about to be commercialized in corn and it is feasible to extend those to the critical human food crops, wheat and rice. The Gates Foundation is funding a major effort to deliver such technologies to poor African farmers for free. These traits are just part of what is needed, but they are potentially important.
Unfortunately, there is continued resistance to “GMO” crops even after 13 years and billions of acres of safe implementation. Of course if we fail to grow enough food, it won’t be the risk-averse, affluent people of Europe and Japan that will suffer. Even though their own farms are less productive than they could be, they will be able to afford to import food at prices that put it out of reach for the poor. They may also continue to be able to block other countries from growing GMO wheat or rice without suffering much for it, but the suffering will occur somewhere else. I highly recommend Robert Paarlberg’s book, “Starved for Science” which documents how European influence has influenced agricultural policy in Africa to reflect the precautionary leanings of their former colonial masters rather than what is needed to feed poor people.
This is why a polar bear is not an appropriate image of what will happen if we don’t respond properly to the challenge of climate change. We need to envision hunger, starvation, political instability, and mass migration. Climate change consequence needs a human face.