Climate Uncertainty to Lead to Food Insecurity

Drought and extreme weather are making it even harder for farmers to produce the food needed to feed 7.3 billion people, and scientists believe that climate change contributes to this volatility in our weather. The risks posed to global food security and the challenges facing farmers and consumers in adapting are the focus of a major scientific assessment released in Paris December 4 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The past six years have been a success story in terms of global food security. Two hundred million fewer people are food insecure today than they were six years ago,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in releasing the report, Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System. “The challenge we now face is whether we can maintain and even accelerate this progress despite the threats from climate change.”

The assessment said that changes in climate are expected to affect U.S. consumers and producers by altering the type and price of food imports from other regions of the world, as well as by changing export demand, and transportation, processing, storage, and infrastructure that enable global trade.

December 4 turned out to be a popular day for issuing reports on climate change and farming. The Risky Business Project, a group of high-profile business leaders that includes former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Cargill executive Greg Page, released a study, “Heat in the Heartland,” that detailed the potential effects of climate change on agriculture in the Midwest.

As Alison Rice noted in her summary for, the findings included:

  • More crop losses due to heat, especially for corn. “The corn crop is strongly heat sensitive and responds less to the beneficial impacts of carbon fertilization than do wheat or soybeans. As a result, the lower half of the Midwest region—the states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa—will likely suffer significant corn yield losses by mid-century absent adaptation,” the report says.
  • More problems with weeds and pests. “Warmer winters will also extend the geographic distribution of weeds northward, exposing farms in northern latitudes to new or enhanced threats to productivity. This can increase the cost of weed control, which already has an $11 billion price tag per year in the U.S. alone…,” according to the report.
  • Less healthy and less productive livestock. “For many livestock species, increased body temperatures of 4°F to 5°F above optimum levels can disrupt performance, production, and fertility, limiting an animal's ability to produce meat, milk, or eggs. Higher temperatures can also increase animal mortality. In addition, climate change can affect the price and availability of water, feed grains, and pasture, and change patterns of animal diseases,” the report says.

The impact on transportation is another concern for the agriculture sector. “Just the last three years, we’ve seen times when the Mississippi was so low it’s not navigable commercially,” said Page, currently executive chairman of the board at Cargill. “And there have been times when the water was so high we couldn’t get our barges under the spouts. What we’re talking about is more volatility, more extremes in terms of temperature or precipitation.”

All these changes could add up to major financial pain, especially if rising temperatures push down corn and soybean production as estimated in the report, which said, “[Illinois] stands to lose an estimated $1.5 billion to $13 billion per year from crop losses by the end of the century.” To help farmers deal with the challenges, USDA has created regional hubs that provide technical support, education, and risk-management guidance.

Forward-looking executives in agriculture and food service understand the perils and are taking steps to counter climate change. General Mills, Cargill, McDonald’s, and Kellogg’s are among the 154 companies that have joined the new American Business Act on Climate Pledge.

Businesses also can play a role in tackling climate change by joining us in promoting enactment of carbon-funded tax cuts: using the revenues from carbon fees to reduce the excessive U.S. corporate tax rate and make low- and middle-income consumers whole.

To gage the reaction to such a fee on Capitol Hill, we met individually with 175 senators and House members, or their aides. We suggested that half the proceeds be used to reduce our corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent. This rate is the highest in the industrialized world, and it is encouraging major corporations like Pfizer to move their headquarters—and taxable profits—outside the United States.

These conversations indicated that there is strong bipartisan receptiveness to this creative compromise, provided businesses and local opinion leaders speak out in support.

The fee could start at $35 or so per ton, perhaps doubling over ten years. It should be levied at the mine mouth or oil and gas collection point--2,500 locations where carbon fuels are already measured for other purposes. A $35-per-ton levy equates to about 32 cents per gallon of gasoline. To offset these slightly higher energy costs, half the proceeds could be refunded
to low and middle income consumers, making them whole or better off.

The legislation we envision would deem the fee to be the way to comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan for six or seven years. Once the carbon fee demonstrates that it has reduced emissions faster than the rule would have, EPA’s plan would be replaced.

If this effort succeeds, there will be untold dividends, including better prospects for feeding Americans and the rest of the world’s people.