Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Global, Long-Term Perspective on Crop Production

The effects of climate change are turning the outlook for long-term food production into an increasingly dire one, according to an MIT study released this week and a report delivered last week by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Food.

UN expert Jean Ziegler is calling for a five-year global moratorium on converting agricultural land into biofuel crop acreage. The use of food crops for production of biofuels, notably corn, he argues, has sent food prices rocketing in a world where the majority of African countries have to import food. Obviously such a move would have a negative impact on the world biofuel market, even if the U.S. were to ignore the advice, as we likely would.

It might seem strange for an advocate for poor African countries like Ziegler to oppose biofuels, considering that many (like the UN ) are quick to point out that climate change would have a disproportionately negative impact on poor communities living in marginal ecological areas. But in many regions, as the MIT report points out, increased carbon dioxide levels would actually be good for crops and soil. Seen purely through a food production lens, a warm, CO2-heavy world might not be such a bad thing.

Still, the desire to head off climate change without starving people living on 50 cents a day is a catch-22 for defenders of our world's poorest populations, and not one that's likely to go away.

But there was bad news for crop production out of the MIT report that biofuel and food proponents can fret about together. The MIT researchers project that ozone would cut crop yields per acre by 40 percent by 2100 if nothing is done to stop its increasing concentration in the atmosphere.

While we normally think about ozone in terms of keeping it intact high in the atmosphere (ah, the hole in the ozone layer ), at ground level it's actually is a nasty pollutant that damages lungs and plants alike. A 2006 Yale study found that even low concentrations of ozone cause higher mortality rates among people.

So, what's causing increased ozone concentrations? Surprise: burning fossil fuels. Scrubbing ozone out of our lives seems like a great challenge for cleantech entrepreneurs looking for fresher fields in which to lay seed capital.