NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Weathering Global Warming in Agriculture

November 7, 2011

Provided it is not a consequence of governmental interference with market forces, cheap food creates far-reaching benefits.  Indeed, declining food scarcity has helped drive overall economic progress for decades, even as the demand for edible goods has been increasing at a fast clip, say Douglas Southgate, a professor at Ohio State University, and Julian Morris, vice president of research at the Reason Foundation.

  • Since the middle of the 20th century, when the population was slightly less than 2.5 billion, human numbers have shot up, surpassing 6 billion shortly before 2000 and currently approaching 7 billion.
  • Yet food supplies have more than kept pace -- mainly thanks to technological advances during and since the Green Revolution that have caused global yields of cereals to rise by 150 percent since the early 1960s.
  • The general tendency of food supplies to overwhelm food demand has registered in the marketplace.

Food prices can remain at current levels or even decline further in the years to come.  But there are caveats.  If governments continue to subsidize and mandate biofuel production, midcentury prices of crops could be 30 percent above current levels.  Also, food could grow scarcer if global warming impairs agricultural productivity.  The question is: will global warming impair agricultural productivity?

Southgate and Morris investigate the potential consequences of climate change for global agricultural output and identify policies that would reduce any negative impacts.  Some researchers have estimated that climate change resulting from manmade global warming could reduce agricultural output significantly (compared to baseline assumptions), especially in tropical countries.  As a result, food prices would rise and malnutrition worsen.  However, these estimates assume minimal or no adaptation to changes in the climate.  In particular, they assume that farmers will fail to switch crops, modify their use of water and other inputs, and adopt new technology.  This view is unrealistic: faced with changing conditions, farmers will adapt -- unless prohibited.

Source: Douglas Southgate and Julian Morris, "Weathering Global Warming in Agriculture," Reason Foundation, November 3, 2011.

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