In one of my first posts for MasterResource, I discussed a (then) just-published paper in Science magazine by David Battisti and Rosamond Naylor that argued that global warming was fast leading us into agricultural failure and a global food crisis.
I pointed out that this was a naïve analysis that gave short-shrift to our ability to adapt to changing climate conditions. Through technological improvement of farming practices and the development of new crop varieties, farmers have not only been able to keep up with a changing climate, but have also managed to produce ever-greater crop yields.
Far from being “dumb farmers” who stand idly by and watch their crops fail, farmers and crop scientists continually work to bring more and better crops to market. This is how it has been in the past, is currently, and undoubtedly will be in the future. After all, it is in all of our best interests—we have to eat.
It seems I wasn’t the only one who had such problems with the Battisti and Naylor article. In this week’s Science magazine is a letter to the editor that makes these very same points.
A group of scientists from the School of the Environment and Natural Resources at the U.K.’s Bangor University, led by Neal Hockley, wrote in to point out the weakness of Battisti and Naylor’s conclusions concerning the threat of climate change to global food security:
If the currently extreme temperatures become the norm, then we would expect farmers to adapt, maintaining yields by selecting alternative crop varieties, species, and cultivation techniques. Examining the performance of agriculture under unprecedented conditions [as Battisti and Naylor did] tells us little about how it will adapt to future climates.
Hockley and colleagues go on to explain that their concern lies more with potential changes in climate variability than with changes in the mean climate, because high year-to-year variability makes it challenging to select the proper crop varieties and/or species most appropriate for the weather in a particular year. However, they think that even changes in variability can be overcome with improved long-range forecasts. Ultimately they conclude:
The future productivity of world agriculture will therefore depend on whether the development and adoption of new varieties and techniques can keep pace with the changing climate and whether improvements in long-range forecasting can keep pace with increases in interseasonal variation. Commercial interests will probably ensure this happens for major crops and richer countries, but substantial public service breeding will be needed for minor crops that are currently prevalent in many tropical areas.
Just as I thought. We’ll find a way to keep our major food crops flourishing, and with a little extra effort, so too will it be for our minor crops.
Battisti, D.S., and R.L. Naylor, 2009. Historical warnings of future food insecurity with unprecedented seasonal heat. Science, 323, 240-244.
Hockley, N., Gibbons, J.M., and G. Edwards-Jones, 2009. Risks of Extreme Heat and Unpredictability. Science, 324, 177.