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Food for Thought
New study downplays C02 benefits on crop yields, but...
Posted July 6, 2006 by Nathan Cool

A new headline made the news recently: "Climate change could have an adverse effect on crops," published by Earthtimes.org, July 3, 2006, here. While staying fairly evenhanded on the subject, the Earthtimes' article does sway to the darker side of this recent study. Is this real? Is this hype? The answers are "Yes," and "Just a tad," and here's why:

In chapter 7 of Is it Hot in Here?, I discussed how the argument used by skeptics of C02 fertilization i s not necessarily well founded. The new study referred to in the Earthtimes' article, published in the journal Science (here) confirms this as well; hence, the first answer of Yes...it is real...C02 is not really a wonder element that will turn a warming world into a bountiful Garden of Eden. But the second question (is it hype) needs a bit more contemplation.

While we typically tend to think of melting ice, rising sea levels, heat waves, etc. affecting our land, coastlines and health, the often-overlooked issue of food in a warming world is frequently brushed under the proverbial rug. Yet this one single issue is of paramount importance since no matter who you are or where you're from, you have to eat to be. You could always shelter yourself from the Sun, and move to higher ground to avoid higher sea levels. But if you can't get enough sustenance, then all other points are moot.

This new C02 fertilization study conducted by Stephen Long from the Department of Plant Biology, University of Illinois as well as scientists from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Institute for Plant Sciences in Zurich, don't actually say we'll all be starving to death. The study does show however that the FACE experiments (mentioned in Is it Hot in Here? in chapter 7) that normally are performed on controlled areas, don't fare so well when conducted on large scale crop yields.

Nevertheless, this new study is not a prophecy for gloom and doom; instead, this latest report suggests that original climate models were overstating the benefits of C02 fertilization effects (like those discussed in chapter 7 in Is it Hot in Here?). In fact, the study points out that originally, many crop yield predictions for a warming world were thought to be zero-summed from the detrimental impacts of increased temperatures and decreased soil moisture, by a benefit of C02 enrichment. This new study now tips the scales a bit to the negative.

No matter how you slice it though, as mentioned in chapter 7, much more is at stake when considering not only long-term C02 fertilization effects, but also how we'll be feeding the masses in the future, and how not everyone will be affected equally in a warming world.