Copyright ©2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've said it many times over the past six months, introducing stories in our Climate Connection series with National Geographic: a changing climate changes us. Perhaps most directly it affects the food we eat. Because if you talk to anyone who grows food for a living, the conversation eventually turns to the weather.

NPR reporters have had those conversations all over the world recently, with women working along a canal filled by the Niger River in West Africa.

(Soundbite of woman singing)

MONTAGNE: And with Denish Shandra Rai(ph) in Bangladesh.

Mr. DENISH SHANDRA RAI: (Through translator) All the (unintelligible) were submerged under water, the crops on the higher land was not sufficient to feed all the people around, and the people were suffering from hunger.

MONTAGNE: And then there's Charlie Pedersen. He's president of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

Mr. CHARLIE PEDERSEN (President, Federated Farmers of New Zealand): You always hope and pray for the best weather, but you get yourself organized for the worst weather. That's what farming is about.

MONTAGNE: Bad weather comes and goes, but changes in the climate endure for generations and their effects on global food production will be profound.

This morning, NPR's Dan Charles reports on one scientist's investigation into how profound those effects will be.

DAN CHARLES: Cynthia Rosenzweig did not grow up thinking much about where her food came from.

Dr. CYNTHIA ROSENZWEIG (Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA): I am from Scarsdale, New York, which is a suburb, an archetypal suburb, of New York City.

CHARLES: She went off to college, but all the excitement of the 1960s made it hard to study. She dropped out. She and her future husband took a trip to Italy. They rented a farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: And our neighbors, who are the contadini, country people, came and taught us how to do everything. So that was my first farm. And then I decided from that, because I loved it so much, that I would come back to the States - when we eventually came back - and that then I would study agriculture.

CHARLES: Which she did. She learned to milk cows and prune apple trees. But then her husband's job took them to Manhattan. And Rosenzweig got a job at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies analyzing pictures that orbiting satellites had taken of farmers' fields.

It was the early 1980s. Few people had heard of the greenhouse effect. But several floors above her, other scientists were working on it fulltime. They were creating some of the first computer simulations of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And one fateful day Rosenzweig got pulled into.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: A question came filtering down from the top floor - what would happen to food? And I was the only person in the building who could even begin to think about that question.

CHARLES: It was a huge question. As the globe warmed up, would there be plenty of food or famine? Nobody really knew. Some scientists were optimistic because the same gas that traps heat in the atmosphere also is essential food for plants.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, all else being equal, is good for crops.

CHARLES: But others warned a warmer climate could mean water shortages in some places and disastrous floods in others.

Rosenzweig turned for answers to another family of computer simulations. They describe how a stalk of wheat or corn grows. These so-called crop models were created during the Cold War in part to help the U.S. predict how much grain the Soviet Union was likely to harvest.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: What the model is actually doing is marching through crop growth day by day, seeing how much carbohydrate can be produced with the solar radiation, with the water available, and the minimum and maximum temperatures.

CHARLES: Rosenzweig and a small army of collaborators fed new information into these crop models - higher temperatures as predicted by their simulations over Earth's future climate, also new patterns of rainfall and melting snow, plus the boost crops get from that extra carbon dioxide. They were among the first to produce a credible estimate of food production in a warmer world, and they have continued to refine that estimate for almost 20 years.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: It's not a catastrophe right away at the global scale.

CHARLES: For the next few decades, Rosenzweig says, climate change probably won't cause a huge change in the total amount of food in the world. But there will be winners and losers. Canada and some other temperate-zone countries are likely to grow more food.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: But for the developing countries, it's a negative pressure right away.

CHARLES: There are two reasons for this: first, places like India, Pakistan and parts of Africa are expected to see more drought; second, while crops need warmth, too much warmth disrupts their development. In the tropics, if it gets much hotter, crops won't do as well.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: Over and over again, our study, and many, many following studies, have shown that the farmers in developing countries are more vulnerable to the changing climate than those in the mid and the higher latitudes where the developed countries are.

CHARLES: And in the long-term, if the globe continues to heat up, by the time today's children become grandparents, even the most optimistic computer models show things getting a lot worse. Global food production starts to decrease. Tens of millions of additional people could go hungry.

Mr. SIWA MSANGI (International Food Policy Research Institute): In the end, you have to look at these as learning tools.

CHARLES: Siwa Msangi, an economist from Tanzania, is a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, in Washington, D.C. It's important to remember, Msangi says, these simulations include assumptions about human choices, about how much greenhouse gases we pump into the air, of course, but also about how much money governments spend on irrigation or on helping poor people buy food. Plug in different choices and the computer models show big changes in agricultural production and hunger.

Mr. MSANGI: And that starts to give you some insight in terms of what are the really sensitive parameters that policy can affect, what are the levers that are available for policymakers to be able to pull, to effect changes.

CHARLES: That human ability to learn and adapt is one reason why Cynthia Rosenzweig says she refuses to be pessimistic.

Dr. ROSENZWEIG: First of all, because - I think you can tell - I'm not a pessimistic person, so this is how I look at it. Global climate change is the most important challenge that we're facing as a planet, but at the same time it is providing the impetus for the planet to change to sustainability.

CHARLES: People are learning, she says, how to consume less energy, send less heat-trapping gases into the air, and possibly how to create a world where people can get enough to eat.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read about a new variety of waterproof rice that may help Asia's rice paddies survive floods at npr.org/climateconnections. And while you're there you can also see a video from public television's "Wild Chronicles," about how farmers in Niger are protecting themselves from climate change.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.