Global Trade Won't Solve the Food Shortages Brought on by Climate Change

A new study shows that farmers, not markets, will have to adapt in order to lessen crop loses.

Numerous studies have made two things very clear about the future of agriculture as the climate continues to change: The effects are going to be bad, and disproportionately so for certain parts of the world that happen to be the poorest.

A new study published last week, in the run up to the Paris climate talks known as COP21, looked at how to best cope with what could end up being catastrophic drops in crop yield in certain parts of the world. In a globalized world economy, you might expect that trade with a country expected to see relatively small drops in yields, like the United States, could bail out a country like Malawi, which could lose more than 50 percent of ag productivity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that’s not the case—its local changes in the field, according to the paper, that will do the most to mitigate the lost harvest and revenue.

“The key is the response within a country, in terms of what those farmers produce, rather than between countries,” Arnaud Costinot, a professor of economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study, said in an interview with MIT’s press office.

The research looked at UN Food and Agriculture Organization data on 10 staple crops, such as wheat and rice, grown around the world, and projected how their yields might change—and how GDP might change—in a number of hypothetical scenarios, such as when farmers can only change their crops and not engage in trade and vice versa, based on climate models from the IPCC. When adapting was the only option, yield would drop to a sixth of the total GDP value agriculture represents today. When trade was the only solution, the loss in GDP was three times larger.

“This illustrates,” the authors wrote, “how farmers’ ability to substitute crop production in response to changes in their comparative advantage—which our micro-level dataset [from FAO] gives us a unique opportunity to study—may substantially mitigate the ill-effects of climate change.”

Which is to say, if farmers change what's in their fields, they can avoid the worst that climate change has to offer—and, perhaps, if they adapt in a certain way, even lessen those effects

Because other research suggests that GDP is not the only thing that can be saved by farmers trying to adapt. Rather, adapting could help to mitigate the very effects of climate change. By reducing the amount of chemical fertilizers used, changing cropping and grazing practices, and generally moving toward ways of farming that capture carbon instead of putting more of it into the atmosphere, could help to make agriculture positive force in the fight against climate change. A report published in July by a number of UN-related groups earmarked 13 adaptation projects for small-holder farmers that could decrease agriculture CO2 emissions by 30 million tons over the next 5 years. And in France, a voluntary government program calling on farmersto increase carbon content in their soil could, with .4 percent growth in global soil carbon annually could stop the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, according to French estimates.

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