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 losses.
Farmer Luc Brizard sows alfalfa in Courcité, northwestern France, on Oct. 23. (Photo: Jean-Francois Monier/Getty Images)
Nov 28, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

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 the 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 the best ways to cope with what could end up being catastrophic drops in crop yields 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, such as the United States, could bail out a country like Malawi, which could lose more than 50 percent of its ag productivity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But that’s not the case. It’s local changes in the field, according to the research, that will do the most to mitigate lost crops 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a coauthor of the study, said in an interview with MIT’s press office.

The research looked at U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization data on 10 staple crops, including wheat and rice, grown around the world and projected how their yields might change—and how gross domestic product might change—in a number of hypothetical scenarios, such as when farmers change their crops and do 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 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,” the authors wrote.

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. 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 make agriculture a positive force in the fight against climate change. A report published in July by a number of U.N.-related groups earmarked 13 adaptation projects for smallholder farmers that could decrease agriculture CO2 emissions by 30 million tons over the next five years. In France, a voluntary government program calling on farmers to increase carbon content in their soil could, with 0.4 percent growth in global soil carbon annually, stop the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, according to French estimates.