WASHINGTON - A global warming trend will reduce farm yields and make food supplies scarcer over the next century, an environmental group said Thursday, citing data from the United Nations (news - web sites) and the National Academy of Sciences (news - web sites) and trends in the world rice market.
"The combination of rising temperatures and falling water tables is likely to lead to a tightening of world grain supplies," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. "This is already evident with world rice prices, which have risen over 30 percent in the last year."
Last year's grain harvest was 2 billion tons, the most ever and 26 million tons more than was consumed, thanks to unusually good weather. But in the four previous years, demand outstripped supply as crops withered under severe heat in the United States, Europe and India, according to the Agriculture Department.
"If stocks go down, we could see a scramble, and I think we're likely to see a politics of food scarcity beginning to emerge," Brown said. "We're already seeing some of it."
Despite depressed prices for wheat and corn, the world price for rice — a crop particularly vulnerable to water shortages — has climbed by more than 30 percent to $260 a ton in the last year, according to government figures.
In research published by the National Academy of Sciences last year, a team of nine scientists concluded that rice yields typically decline by 10 percent with each 2-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature during the growing season.
In the Philippines, where the research was done, temperatures rose an average of 2 degrees between 1979 and 2003, the scientists said.
Brown's group noted that the earth's average temperature rose by 1 degree in the past three decades, and that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts it will rise by 2 to 10 degrees by 2100.
Compounding the problem is that half the world's population lives in countries where water tables are falling and wells are going dry, Brown said.
These include the big three grain producers — China, India and the United States — which account for nearly half the world grain harvest. Other countries where underground aquifers are being overpumped include Iran, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Brown calculated that the population in countries where wells are drying up will increase by nearly 3 billion people by 2050.
U.S. officials estimate that of the world's 6.4 billion population, 1 billion people in at least 70 nations are hungry. While food production is a factor, the officials say the more common problem is lack of money to buy food, even in the richest of nations.
The United States and 185 other nations pledged at U.N.-sponsored summits in 1996 and 2002 to halve the number of undernourished people by 2015. While progress toward that goal has been made in Asia and Latin America, according to U.S. figures, little improvement has occurred in Africa.
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Prices lower than ever for the farmer.
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