Grain Drain

World Reports

Last year, record rainfall during the spring turned his fields so slushy that wheat farmer Carl Mattson was unable to sow a crop in some sections of his 4,000-acre farm in Liberty County, Montana. But by mid-June, weeks earlier than usual, the sky dried out. Intense heat and strong winds parched the soil. Then leaf stripe rust attacked the wheat stands. For the first time in his farm’s 100-year history, Mattson was forced to use a fungicide to save his crop.

woodcut-style artwork depicting a stalk of wheat

“It is getting more and more difficult to finish the spring wheat crop in July and August because it’s tending to be hotter and drier than is good for the crop,” says 61-year-old Mattson, who runs Mattson Farms along with his wife, son, and daughter.

Wheat falls into two main categories: “winter wheat” and “spring wheat.” Spring wheat, which is usually planted in April in north-central Montana, needs moisture until late June or early July to produce a good yield. For the past seven years, this region in the heart of Montana’s wheat-producing “Golden Triangle” has seen scant rain after mid-June. Before that, the entire region went through a severe drought from 1995 to 2005.

For the Mattsons, whose farm is completely rain dependent, the changing weather has meant that since 2007 they’ve gone from growing mostly spring wheat to growing mostly winter wheat. That’s a major shift so far up the Northern Plains. It used to be that Montana growers stayed away from winter wheat because of the risk of deadly frosts. Mattson has also begun exploring drought-tolerant crops like peas and lentils. “Economically it’s still a struggle [to grow wheat],” he says.

Scoping out new crops is a wise move for farmers like Mattson. New research shows that climate change will have a greater impact on wheat crops than expected. A study by scientists at Stanford University found that a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature would reduce the wheat-growing season by nine days and cut yields by up to 20 percent. After looking at nine years of data on wheat performance in northern India, the researchers concluded that extreme heat causes the plant to age faster, reducing the size of the grain head. “Many wheat growing areas around the world face climate related challenges and have seen climate changes in the past few decades,” Steve Lobell, the report’s lead author, says via email.

This fits with Mattson’s experience. As the world gets warmer, the growing range of heat-intolerant crops like wheat is shrinking. Climate change has already reduced wheat yields across the world by 5.5 percent since 1980, according to a joint study on climate trends and crop production by Columbia and Stanford universities. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico estimates that nearly half of the world’s wheat crop is at risk from rising temperatures. The United States, which is the world’s largest wheat exporter, might escape much of the impact mainly because about 70 to 80 percent of its wheat is grown in winter. The biggest losers from global warming appear to be Russia, India, and France. Conservative estimates say that wheat yields in India could fall by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, global wheat production, now at 689 million tons, needs to increase by about 50 percent by 2050 to feed an expanding population, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Given that wheat is the world’s second biggest crop after corn, lower wheat yields could be devastating for global food security.

Recent crop failures illustrate the threat. The first was in 2007-08, when grain shortfalls in the European Union, Australia, and Russia led their governments to curb exports, driving wheat prices to record highs. Then, in 2010, a seven-week heat wave in Russia, coupled with drought and wildfires, wiped out 37 percent of the nation’s wheat crop, forcing it to halt exports to control spiraling domestic food prices. Simultaneously, unstable weather lowered wheat production in Europe as flooding in Canada cut output there by 17 percent. The combined whammy led to a 60 percent spike in wheat prices that many analysts say played a crucial role in fomenting the Arab Spring.

Wheat isn’t the only grain affected by climate change. Temperature increases and changes in precipitation are impacting two other major staple grains – corn and rice – that along with wheat make up nearly half the calories consumed directly by people. (Grain-fed animal products comprise much of the remainder.) Global corn yields have gone down 3.8 percent since 1980, and yields in some rice-producing countries have dropped as much as 10 percent.

In the past, low yields caused by weather disturbances could be explained away as aberrations that would automatically be set right once the weather normalized and a couple of good harvests were underway. But as Earth’s climate gets increasingly unstable, there is no “normal” to revert to. Grain-exporters like the US no longer have sizeable food stockpiles to make up for shortages in other parts of the world. Ironically, in 2011 the world’s farmers produced more grain than ever before. But since global grain production fell short of consumption in seven of the past 12 years, grain stockpiles are low (only enough to cover 72 days of global consumption, instead of the 100 days it used to be). The safety net to protect us from a food crisis appears increasingly flimsy.

Climate change isn’t the only threat to world grain supplies. Grain yields are stagnating because there’s less arable land left and because water reserves are being sucked dry. Due to a combination of all these factors, “what we now have is world grain prices that are double the price from five years ago… and they are only going to get higher,” says Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute founder.

High grain prices are pushing more and more people into hunger. As of 2010, there were more than 1.4 billion hungry people. Brown believes we are at the point where one failed harvest could cause a grain shortage that would send food prices spiraling out of control, further increase hunger, cause governments to collapse, and ultimately lead to war and lawlessness. “Judging by the archeological records of earlier civilizations, more often than not food shortages appear to have precipitated their decline and collapse,” Brown writes in his book, World on the Edge.

Out in Montana, Carl Mattson, whose entire crop is shipped to Asia, sees it more simply. “My personal opinion is that the world will need a lot more wheat in the future,” he says.

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal.

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