05 June 2011

Flawed Food Narrative in the New York Times

[UPDATE June 5: Justin Gillis has graciously sent me an email with a thoughtful response to this post.  He does not want his email shared publicly but he did convey that he was referring to "growth rates" when he wrote "rapid growth in farm output."  He further pointed me to a very interesting FAO paper on this subject (PDF) to support his response.

I responded to Justin that his comments did not alter my view of his article, and I pointed out that the FAO article that he shared with me included the following conclusion, which differs pretty strongly from his article:

It is common that when world grain prices spike as in 2008, a small fraternity of world food watchers raises the Malthusian specter of a world running out of food. Originally premised on satiating the demon of an exploding population, the demon has evolved to include the livestock revolution, and most recently biofuels. Yet since the 1960s, the global application of science to food production has maintained a strong track record of staying ahead of these demands. Even so, looking to 2050 new demons on the supply side such as water and land scarcity and climate change raise voices that “this time it is different!” But after reviewing what is happening in the breadbaskets of the world and what is in the technology pipeline, we remain cautiously optimistic about the ability of world to feed itself to 2050 . . .
Justin did not comment on my criticisms of his article's discussion of recent extreme events.]

Today's New York Times has an article by Justin Gillis on global food production that strains itself to the breaking point to make a story fit a narrative.  The narrative, of course, is that climate change "is helping to destabilize the food system."  The problem with the article is that the data that it presents don't support this narrative.

Before proceeding, let me reiterate that human-caused climate change is a threat and one that we should be taking seriously. But taking climate change seriously does not mean shoehorning every global concern into that narrative, and especially conflating concerns about the future with what has been observed in the past. The risk of course of putting a carbon-centric spin on every issue is that other important dimensions are neglected.

The central thesis of the NYT article is the following statement:
The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.
But this claim of slowing output is shown to be completely false by the graphic that accompanies the article, shown below.  Far from slowing, farm output has increased dramatically over the past half-century (left panel) and on a per capita basis in 2009 was higher than at any point since the early 1980s (right panel).
The article relies heavily on empty appeals to authority.  For example, it makes an unsupported assertion about what "scientists believe":
Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming. 
Completely unmentioned are the many (most?) scientists who believe that evidence is lacking to connect recent floods and heat waves to "human-induced global warming." In fact, the balance of evidence with respect to floods is decidedly contrary to the assertion in the article, and recent heat wave attribution is at best contested.  More importantly, even in the face of periodic weather extremes, food prices -- which link supply and demand -- exhibit a long-term downward trend, despite recent spikes.

Even the experts that Gillis cites don't really support the central thesis of the article.  For instance,
“The success of agriculture has been astounding,” said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a researcher at NASA who helped pioneer the study of climate change and agriculture. “But I think there’s starting to be premonitions that it may not continue forever.”
Some important issues beyond carbon dioxide are raised in the article, but are presented as secondary to the carbon narrative.  Other important issues are completely ignored -- for example, wheat rust goes unmentioned, and it probably has a greater risk to food supplies in the short term than anything to do with carbon dioxide.

The carbon dioxide-centric focus on the article provides a nice illustration of how an obsession with "global warming" can serve to distract attention from factors that actually matter more for issues of human and environmental concern.


  1. Roger,

    While you were posting the above, I was posting about another poorly done article trying to tie 'global warming' to tornadoes: http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2011/06/weather-stupidity.html

    The world has serious environmental concerns. But, as you state, trying to tie GW to every malady hurts what is left of the environmental movement's credibility on this issue.


  2. If a college student wrote that article, I'd hand it back to them covered in red ink.

    "Some scientists believe..."

    "it might..."


    The piece is loaded down with enough qualifiers to sink a battleship. I'll assume good will, so I'm left with the only other possibility - that the writer can't think his way out of a paper bag. And this is who gets to write analysis pieces in the New York Times.

  3. But wasn't an important part of rising food prices the use of grain for ethanol - an attempt to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere? Darned if you do...

    The quote by Rosenzweig is fairly vague. I don't know what a scientific premonition is, but I would tend to go more with the premonitions of a scientist who works in agriculture about a specific agricultural topic.

    Agriculture is way too important to humankind - and too site-specific- for anyone to give credence to anyone else's vague generalities, IMHO.

  4. This is typical NYT MO. When the facts get in the way they don't mentioned them. A good story is more important. Are you going to write a rebuttal?

  5. Roger - since you're the one worried about AGW, you should get really angry with its hyperinflated use.

    The AGW sticker will soon carry a value in the region of a Zimbabwean dollar, and stop conveying any meaning whatsoever.

  6. There is no environmental justification for using ethanol from corn for fuel. The best way for the United States to reduce their dependence on foreign fuel sources and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions would be to encourage the use of compressed natural gas to run cars. Right now we are converting 8 BILLION bushels of corn into ethanol which is enough to feed hundreds of millions of people. The worst part is that this wouldn't happen without a government subsidy. We are paying to starve people.

  7. Granted that climate is only one of a scope of challenges facing global agriculture, I think it is still worth considering that there are physiological thresholds for heat stress in plant reproductive cycles. Anyway, I have some other comments here: http://www.shapingsciencepolicy.com/2011/06/agricultural-innovation-threat-of.html

  8. That someone could use the (linked) FAO report to support such pessimistic alarmism is (almost) beyond belief.

    The report begins its conclusions:

    "It is common that when world grain prices spike as in 2008, a small fraternity of world food watchers raises the Malthusian specter of a world running out of food."

    ....and concludes:

    Darwin, whose 200th birthday we celebrated this
    year leaves two relevant statements: “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin,” and, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives….[but]…. the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    Amen to that, from what I consider to be the most well-researched and objective UN-sponsored report I've ever read.

  9. What no one wants to say but that is probably true is that greenhouse global warming would probablly increase food production due to CO2 fertilization and longer growing seasons. In any case the issue is whether the contuing long term increase in yields will be made slower or faster by global warming. Yield per acre of major grains has increased by 2-3 times since the 1950's and the trend can be expected to continue. But, the idea that food production is threatened by global warming gets respect because it provides another reason to get research grants. Lot's of people who know that AGW is a house of cards hold back from saying so because AGW is convenient for a lot of academics and they don't like people dissing it.