Nelson joins lively NYT discussion on food security

Gerald Nelson, IFPRI's senior climate change researcher and the lead author of Food security, farming, and climate change to 2050, the research monograph on which CASE Maps is based, was recently quoted at length in the New York Times' influential climate change column Dot Earth. In Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World, he discussed how to best tackle emerging demographic challenges--namely, the addition of 9 billion new people to the world population by 2050. His quote:

A few thoughts. In the two pieces Andy references, Krugman tends to underestimate the ability of humans to substitute one resource for another. So the end of oil, for example, doesn’t mean the end of energy use or necessarily, of human civilization. And more people with more income doesn’t necessarily mean mass starvation and riots.

But more people with higher incomes does mean greater demands. And with most of the additional population in developing countries, the additional demand is concentrated geographically. There is also some indication, although with great uncertainty, that the climate change challenges will be concentrated in these same geographies. So the great food security questions are:

- the extent to which technical innovations can keep up both with growing food demand (with more or less the same resource use) and the debilitating effects of climate change (a large set of biological challenges)

- the extent to which we (humans) will actually invest in those innovations (some/many of the needed innovations are likely to be public goods, ie, the private sector can’t capture the returns from investing in them)

- the extent to which we can use international trade to compensate for changes in agricultural comparative advantage driven by either economics, demographics, or climate change.

The relative threats change with time. At the moment, population and income growth are the big drivers, with random weather shocks causing more problems today than they would have in the past.

As we get closer to 2050 population growth becomes less of an issue and income growth and climate change grow in relative importance. After 2050, climate change becomes the biggest threat, unless something is done sooner rather than later about reduce GHG emissions.

Just a few findings from our recent research monograph:

Between 2010 and 2050, our scenarios result in maize price increases of 87 to 106 percent in real terms; rice is 31 to 78 percent; and when is 44 to 59 percent.

With a 40 percent increase over our base productivity growth in the developing countries, the price increases in the baseline scenario drop from 101 percent to 56 percent for maize; 55 to 31 for rice; and 54 to 20 percent for wheat. In other words, this increase productivity results in roughly a halving of the real price growth.

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