Balancing food, weather, and population

The drought that has hit the United States and other grain-producing nations could be global warming or just a one-season aberration. But while weather fluctuates year to year, global population doesn't. And that means that feeding 9 billion mouths by 2050 will require unprecedented effort.

Aijaz Rahi/AP
Students in traditional garb ate breakfast before performing at a celebration of India’s independence in Bangalore, India, last month.

Cyclical or secular? That’s the question economists, historians, climatologists, farmers, consumers – just about anyone with an interest in the future, which is more or less everyone – are trying to answer. 

During bad times, the idea of cyclicality is encouraging. We can ride out hardship because prosperity is just around the corner – although we also can’t relax when things are looking up because the economy is sure to head south again. 

A secular change, on the other hand, means we’ve entered a new era, which is swell if that era is prosperous and plentiful – the two-decade “great moderation” that started in 1985, for instance. But secular change can also mean we get locked into sluggishness and scarcity as far as the eye can see. That’s the worry that has accompanied the Great Recession that began in 2007 and persists in many sectors of the world economy.

The drought that has gripped the agricultural heartland of the United States, Russia, Australia, India, and other food-producing regions of the world in 2012 (see this current Monitor cover story) has a cyclical/secular dimension. If the climate has changed, drought could be the new normal, with big implications for consumers, especially in poor countries. But parched conditions could also just be a bad patch of weather similar to the great droughts of the 1930s, early 1950s, and late 1980s. Tree-ring data indicate droughts even more severe than those in the 1930s occurred in pre-Columbian North America.

If that seems cyclical, there’s still a secular dimension. The 21st-century combination of global population and global trade is unprecedented. Never before have 7 billion people lived on this planet (with 2 billion more on the way by 2050). Never before have far-flung markets been so interconnected. 

If droughts merely come and go, feeding the burgeoning world population would be difficult enough. If droughts are a more permanent condition now because the climate is growing warmer, feeding the world will require the best and brightest in agriculture and resource management.

You may not recall the drought of 1988. There was plenty of other news that year – a US presidential election; the start of anticommunist revolutions in Eastern Europe; a devastating earthquake in Armenia; the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. But the ’88 drought at one point covered 45 percent of the US, and until hurricane Katrina it was the costliest natural disaster in US history. A study commissioned by Oxfam indicates that if an ’88-scale drought recurred in 2030, poorer countries that import corn and wheat would face a shock so severe that famine and social unrest would be the result. 

A sharp rise in food prices in 2007-08 roiled populations from Mexico to Sri Lanka and helped set the stage for today’s Middle East upheaval. So far, the drought of 2012 has not caused panic, largely because governments from Egypt to India warehoused foodstuffs for just such a contingency. 

Prudence is important even if Earth’s weather isn’t undergoing secular change. Rains come and go. Years of lean follow years of plenty. But feeding 9 billion people by midcentury is more than a cyclical challenge. It will require levels of innovation and co-operation never before seen in human history. 

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