Summary: We have a fevered desire to know the future, especially about the dynamics that shape our lives. Giving us confident answers pays well, tempting even the best of professionals. Here we examine a case study: the La Nina related weather and bad harvests. Another in a series about food, one of the underappreciated drivers of geopolitical change.
Recent posts have discussed three possible meteorological drivers of global cooling — and poor harvests.
- Eruptions of Kamchatka volcanoes — Certainly disruptive to global weather patterns; some cooling effect, but its magnitude is difficult to assess.
- Solar Cycle 24 (the 24th of the sun’s 11 year cycles for which we have good records) — Speculative. See posts here and here for details.
- ENSO (Pacific Ocean weather) swinging to La Nina-dominated cycles — The cooling effect is certain; duration unknown. Details are here, with an update below.
Even the news media has woken up to the effects of the current La Nina. But how long will it last? It might be ending now. Or it might last for years, like the cooling during 1970-1976 (the global cooling scare; links to more information appear at the end). With food stockpiles dwindling, even one more year of bad harvests would have severe consequences. The good news is that meteorologists have powerful forecasting models. The bad news: their forecasts don’t agree. See this revealing graph from page 27 of NOAA’s weekly ENSO report, the go-to place for information about these cycles. NOAA tells us like it is.
Summary: Yesterday we asked if food prices will continue to rise, destabilizing the third world? Today we ask the same question, with the Sun as the suspect. This takes us to the frontier of science, beyond the cartoon certainties fed to us by the news media. This is un-news, hidden from the public as these uncertainties challenge the story of human-emitted CO2 as the driver of Earth’s climate. If the sun continues to slow, and if that cools our world, then the resulting cool phase will send food prices on a one-way trip to the moon, which will rock the world. But despite the confident assertions on many sceptic website, this remains just speculation. One of the many shockwaves (low probability, high inpact) scenarios for which we should prepare — but not panic. Click here for an update; links to additional information appear at the end.
(1) The Solar Cycle’s influence on Earth’s weather
There is a strong correlation between solar cycles and Earth’s climate. Slow cycles (low levels of solar activity during the 11 cycle) overlap cool periods of Earth’s climate. The Little Ice Age overlapped the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715). There was also cooling during the Spörer Minimum (1460-1550) and and Dalton Minimum (1790-1830). There is evidence in the geological record of a longer-term relationship (see the references in section six of this FM reference page.
But there is no proven physical basis for that relationship. Both solar irradiance and the influx of galactic cosmic rays vary little, hence unlikely to have a substantial influence on Earth’s climate. But the historical correlation remains, even if the cause remains a mystery. It’s of more than theoretical interest, since the Sun appears to be slowing again. Will the Earth cool in response.
(2) Solar Cycle 24
Here is the monthly National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) graph of sunspot activity (the page also shows F10.7cm radio flux, a more direct measure of solar activity). Note the drop in December. The blue line is the 13 month moving average, centered on the 7th month (i.e., average of 6 months behind and 6 ahead). It’s tracing a curve far below the forecast of NOAA’s Solar Cycle 24 Prediction Committee as of May 2009, which calls for a maximum of 90 in May 2013. The Panel’s first forecast (April 2007) called for a peak of 90-140 sometime between October 2011 and August 2012 (the Panel’s experts were divided).
Summary: Riots around the world in 2008 and this year show the effect of rising food prices. There are many drivers of prices — increasing consumption, under-investment, pests/disease, weather. And despite the propaganda, cool cycles usually cause more harm than warm cycles. In this series we examine two wild cards, potential causing years of cool weather. Today: decadal climate cycles. Tomorrow: solar cycles. At the end of this post are links to more information about the emerging food crisis and global climate cycles.
- About the causes of rising food prices
- What is the ENSO and why is it is important?
- Today we’re experiencing the effects of a La Nina
- What comes next?
- An important note
- Other posts about food and global cooling
(1) About the causes of rising food prices
Among the two wild cards that might destabilize the world, two are widely underestimated: the normal decadal cyles (e.g., ENSO) and sunspot cycles. It is too soon for reliable forecasts, but there is evidence that either or both might reduce global crops during the next decade — especially in climatically marginal areas like Russia and Canada — and thereby boost food prices. Given the high weight of food in emerging market CPI baskets (one-third to half), this could destabilize many poor nations. The riots following the 2008 food price spike were just a sample of what might happen after a several years of rising prices. Imagine what a repeat of the 1970’s cooling would do.
Source: “Population Growth, Increases in Agricultural Production and Trends in Food Prices“, Douglas Southgate (Prof agricultural economics at Ohio State U), Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, July 2009
(2) What is the ENSO and why is it is important?
The the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is} one of the world’s major large-scale sea-air coupled interaction, occurring in the tropical Indo-Pacific region. From the Britannica:
Summary: Readers of the FM website respond to its contents with a flood of comments (emailed or using the comment form). Mostly critical, appropriate to it content — speculation about the topics on the edge of the known. Some brilliant. Some illustrate why America might have a very difficult time in the coming years. Here we discuss responses to About the coming large rise in food prices. Links to more information appear at the end.
Yesterday’s article predicted a high likelihood of rising food prices: “Managing this almost inevitable trend might be one of the major challenges during the next decade.” Here are some of the questions and comments submitted by readers.
- “The possibility of food shortages is reflected in their futures prices. That’s all you need to look at.”
- “We have buffers against food shortages. Increasing food prices could save the West from diabetes and obesity. Also, suburban land could be used? All those McMansion backyards add up!”
- “Does the self-inflicted higher priced food (organic, local) have any role in your analysis?”
- “We can farm and ranch more at sea.”
- Update: retail food prices have not yet started to rise
Here are replies to each of these.
(1) “The possibility of food shortages is reflected in their futures prices. That’s all you need to look at.”
Here we see the result of intensive conservative propaganda, teaching a faux version of economics. A fetish-like over-confidence in markets, ungrounded in history or theory. Very pleasing to the corporatist elements seeking to rollback regulations protecting workers and the environment — and especially to prevent regulations limiting the government-protected financial sector that has periodically threatened to capsize the US economy during the past four decades.
Why is this not so? First, consider the major factors driving agricultural futures prices (extending out to a practical maximum of 3 years). None of these are affected to a significant degree by the long-term factors described in yesterday’s articles.
Summary: Rising food prices might be one of the most important geopolitical trends of the decade. This is another post in a series, describing the causes and effects; links to other chapters appear at the end. Also see part two in this series: More about rising food prices (perhaps one of the big trends of the next decade).
What result do you expect from this combination of factors?
- Rising demand for the product.
- Inability to increase the key inputs. All that can be done is investment more into equipment and technology.
- Low stockpiles
- Low prices (near record low real prices)
- Adverse production environment (bad external factors)
- Now square the circle: what will balance supply and demand?
- For more information
The subject is food, growing crops. The answer to the question in bullet #6: rising prices. Managing this almost inevitable trend might be one of the major challenges during the next decade.
(1) Rising demand
Incomes are rising rapidly in the emerging nations. From “The Rise of Asia’s Middle Class“, Asian Development Bank (2010):
Developing Asia’s middle class has increased rapidly in size and purchasing power as strong economic growth in the past two decades has helped reduce poverty significantly and lift previously poor households into the middle class. By 2008, it had risen to 56% of the population — or nearly 1.9 billion people — up from 21% in 1990, using an absolute definition of per capita consumption of $2– $20 per day (based on survey data in 2005 PPP $); expenditures had increased almost three-fold, compared to more marginal increases in all other regional economies in the OECD.
As people rise from poverty they increase their consumption of food. More calories, especially more meat. Hence the rising demand for food, a sign of the fantastic progress of the world happening right now (often lost in the whining from the developed nations).
(2) Little or no ability to increase inputs of land or water
As usual with cutting edge research, the timing and significance of this is impossible for a layman to accurately access. But this could be bad for China. Yields have already dropped 30-50% in some places.
- A summary of the research by Reuters
- More detailed summaries, in ScienceNow and Nature
- The research, in Science
- For more information from the FM site, and an Afterword
(1) A summary of the research by Reuters
Vivid, for a general audience. “Fertilizer overuse destroying Chinese soil“, Reuters, 11 February 2010 — Excerpt:
Heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers in China since the 1980s has resulted in severe acidification of its soil and some cropland in the south of the country can no longer be used, a Chinese expert said. “In the south, heavy use of fertilizers has pushed the pH to 3 or 4 in some places. Maize, tobacco and tea cannot be grown. This is a long term effect,” said Zhang Fusuo, a professor on plant nutrition at China Agricultural University in Beijing.
Summary: Peak food would be bad news, since the world’s population will increase for a few more generations, until falling fertility sends it crashing down. But there is little evidence of this, and much suggesting that food production can greatly increase.
- This is just a sketch, not an analysis. Please post in the comments any references to real research on this topic.
- The invention of effective contraceptive for women has, with other factors, crashed fertility to near (or below) replacement levels in most of the world. The invention of an effective male contraceptive might crash it even more — perhaps imperiling the existence of the human race.
- To see the facts, see the FOODSTAT database of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
- Has food production peaked in the developed nation (i.e., the OECD)?
- Even if OECD productivity (and hence production) has peaked, does that mean peak food?
- What about peak water?
- What about peak oil?
- For more information
(1) Has food production peaked in the developed nation (i.e., the OECD)?
This fear re-surfaces throughout history, and has again with the public of “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?“, Lester Brown, Scientific American, May 2009. It’s probably a false alarm again. For example, US agricultural productivity continues to rise. Such as corn yields, which have risen linearly (with no slowing) since WWII, from 20 bu/acre to 160. Genetically engineered crop might produce another green revolution (like all progress today, accompanied by forecasts of doom by greens).
As for today, the headlines signal that we are not yet at Peak Food: “Wheat Price Tailspin Accelerating Signals 13% Drop on Record Harvests“, Bloomberg, 1 November 2009 (wheat is the world’s most-planted crop):
Global output rose 12% to a record 682.3 million metric tons in the year through May and will total 668.1 million in the current season, the second-most ever, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said October 9.