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The Importance of Grain in a Changing Climate

Ever since the global food price spike in 2007-2008, grain crops, which make up half of the total human caloric intake around the world, have been subject to much discussion as climate impacts such as droughts, heat waves and temperatures increases have continued to shift their prices upward.

A recent article by Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute indicates that the world’s farmers produced more grain in 2011 than ever before; the global grain harvest was at 2,295 million tons, up 53 million tonnes from the previous record in 2009. However, the article also reports that, in seven out of the past twelve years, grain production has fallen short.

Between 1984 and 2001, world grain stocks hovered around the level of 100 days of current consumption. From 2001 to 2006, grain production fell; this problem was exacerbated by the 2007-2008 food price spike that resulted in grain prices tripling, affected millions in the developing and developed worlds alike.

The article also reminds us that the land available (or not) to feed each person on earth is contributing to the concomitant slow down of crop yield growth. Internationally, grain is grown on about 700 million hectares (1.7 billion acres); with 7 billion people now on the planet, that works out to 0.1 hectares planted in grain per person, a large decrease from the mid 20th century, when there was over 0.2 hectares per person.

The demand for grain crops is rising under the influence of globalization and changing diets, as well as the rise of emerging economies such as China and South Korea. Even China, which produces 456 million tonnes of grain per year (one of the highest outputs in the world), imported five million tonnes of grain in 2011; suggesting that its food consumption patterns are changing, particularly with regard the expectations around meat consumption as lifestyles grow more affluent. China is now the world’s number one grain feeder to animals – 149 million tonnes in 2010 – surpassing even the United States and its grain-fed beef focus.

These issues with grain have large implications for climate change adaptation, in particular how governments will approach food policy. One positive sign is the termination of corn-ethanol subsidies in the US introduced by Goerge Bush Jr., which had caused significant problems – from raising international corn prices out of reach of those who subsist on corn, to environmental ramifications such as the massive marine dead zone where the Mississippi meets the sea caused by the concentration of nitrates being used by corn farmers upriver.

In 2010, rising temperatures and heat waves in Russia decimated wheat crops, forcing the country to institute bans on sales and dramatically increasing international wheat prices. Given these and other projected climate impacts, the world’s grain reserves may become an increasingly important cushion against future shocks, as grain reserves could provide food security protection in times of droughts or other extreme weather events.

The forthcoming ACT Crops & Food Supply report due out September 2012), authored by Erik Karlsen, will include a roadmap of key climate change issues for agriculture in Canada, as well as identified opportunities for government responses that might enable and support resilience building.

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