Global warming may inflate food prices

Feb. 26, 2010, 1:03 a.m.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that the delegation to Copenhagen was led by Stephen Schneider and Karim Farhat. In fact, the delegation was led by Stephen Schneider and Terry Root, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. Farhat was a participant in the delegation, but spoke at Wednesday’s panel alongside Schneider.

According to a study by Stanford agricultural scientists David Lobell Ph.D. ’05 and Marshall Burke ’02, with Purdue University agricultural economist Thomas Hertel, climate change may affect food prices over the next 20 years, with possible repercussions on poverty, development and global conflict.

The study tested the impacts of food production in three different agricultural scenarios: high, moderate and low yield, depending on temperature fluctuations. The “moderate yield” outcome is most likely; in comparison, the likelihood that the “high yield” and “low yield” scenario occurs is only five percent.

Lobell, a fellow at Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE), explained that as temperature rises, soil would dry up and change plants’ natural biological processes, decreasing food productivity. With less food available, grain prices might increase 30 percent relative to 1990, said Lobell, adding that because those in poverty spend a significant amount of their income on food, they tend to be the ones most hurt by rising food prices.

Lobell said this study is unique in examining scenarios apart from the one considered most likely by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He noted that policy makers should take all outcomes into consideration because their decisions influence a nation’s ability to cope with climate change.

Walter Falcon, deputy director of FSE, said the study emphasizes “a very tight, strong and powerful” connection between food supply and climate change.

Food supply is also linked to technology, Falcon noted. Because a great deal of fertile land has already been used, productivity will decrease without further investment in research, development and technology.

However, Falcon warned that development and technological innovation could have negative effects on the environment.

“It’s important, and we can do something about it,” he said of decreasing productivity. “But it’s not going to be easy given potential stresses between increases in technology and disruptive environmental consequences.”

Aside from pointing toward the potential need for technological advances, the study also analyzed how the changing food productions would impact different groups of people. Studying 15 developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Lobell and his colleagues found that the effects vary greatly among countries and even between economic subgroups within a country.

For countries that are agriculture-dependent, like Indonesia, the study found that the country would see a reduction in overall poverty. However, where poor people work to produce — but not sell — food, or live in urban environments, as in Brazil, poverty rates would increase substantially.

And while net poverty does not change greatly in the most likely scenario, Lobell said some poorer countries would see rising poverty rates, especially in Africa where food production will drastically decrease.

“It ultimately does become an environmental justice issue, and a matter of …who can afford to pay for the changes to come,” said Theo Gibbs ’11, co-president of Students for a Sustainable Stanford.

On Wednesday afternoon, Stephen Schneider, a fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, and Karim Farhat, a graduate student in energy resources engineering, gave presentations about their experiences at the Copenhagen Climate Conference held last December. Schneider and Terry Root, another fellow at the Woods Institute, led a delegation to the conference that included a number of Stanford students.

Philippe de Koning ’10, a member of the Stanford delegation to Copenhagen, notes that many of these nations most affected by climate change are already aware of the future problems.

“We’re already seeing a lot of the effect of climate change like famine and drought,” he said of developing countries. “But developed nations don’t suffer from those problems as much so it’s not as pressing for them, which is one of the reasons I think why Copenhagen failed.”

Generally, developing countries act concurrently in order to have more influence, said Farhat, who represented the Stanford delegation during the negotiations between nations. But he added that because each country has vastly different food needs, the question of food security was intensely negotiated in Copenhagen without consensus.

“The monolith of developing countries is over,” Schneider agreed. “There’s a spectrum of views among everyone…and that is why you need to drive people to the middle.”

Schneider also warned in his presentation that decreasing food supply — exacerbated by growing populations, climate change and poor development strategies — could harm international security.

De Koning, whose senior honors thesis is in international security studies, predicts that conflict will increase as people migrate to escape famines.

“When you have people immigrating and emigrating, you’re bound to encounter a clash of communities,” he said. “Especially when this happens on such a large scale, we’re bound to see a dramatic rise in conflict in the places most affected.”

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