Gary Paul Nabhan published an op-ed yesterday in the NYT on global warming, agriculture, and farm policy. Some of his suggestions, such as reducing regs and restrictions on "gray water" might have some merit (assuming food safety risks can be adequately handled) but most of his suggestions presume government is the only answer.
First, let's look at his premise that global warming will invariably lead to a "coming food crisis". In actuality, a warming planet will produce some winners and some losers, and may be net-plus for agriculture. It is possible that farmers in Arizona, where Nabhan resides, will lose from higher temperatures, but there likely to be other locations, like Canada, where agriculture benefits. There is a lively debate among economists, fought out in the pages of the American Economic Review over precisely this issue (see the papers here or here suggesting climate change will benefit US agriculture or here, here, or here suggesting the reverse). It would have been nice to see some discussion on this issue rather than simply claiming a disaster is coming.
Where things really go off base, however, are in the policy prescriptions. Here are a few with some brief comments.
First, he says about his strategies that:
The problem is that several agribusiness advocacy organizations have done their best to block any federal effort to promote themI'm not sure exactly what "blocks" these groups have but in the way of Nabhan's ideas, but more generally several farmer groups like the idea of carbon trading because they'd get paid for sequestration.
His first policy is to:
promote the use of locally produced compost to increase the moisture-holding capacity of fields, orchards and vineyards.
I'm not sure why the compost needs to be local if it is really so beneficial. It is also unclear why farmers wouldn't source these materials now if they improved yield and limited chances of loss. I suspect if research showed these techniques could improve the moisture-holding capacity of soils, there wouldn't need to be much promotion or subsidy for farmers to adopt.
Then, we are told:
the farm bill should include funds from the Strikeforce Initiative of the Department of Agriculture to help farmers transition to forms of perennial agriculture — initially focusing on edible tree crops and perennial grass pastures
However, if the problem is that conventional crops are not as profitable in a warming environment, there needn't be a Strikeforce Initiative or top-town planning; farmers will willingly seek out those alternatives they can grow most profitably given altered weather conditions.
Then, we have another crisis:
We also need to address the looming seed crisis. Because of recent episodes of drought, fire and floods, we are facing the largest shortfall in the availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds in American history
the National Plant Germplasm System, the Department of Agriculture’s national reserve of crop seeds, should be charged with evaluating hundreds of thousands of seed collections for drought and heat tolerance, as well as other climatic adaptations — and given the financing to do so.
Don't you think Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and other seed producers have a HUGE incentive to store and develop crop varieties that are likely to be more profitable in a warmer climate? I'm not exactly sure what is described here as a "seed crisis" that profit-making seed companies (and University breeders) aren't already thinking about. Moreover, if the problem is really so dire as Nabhan suggest, why doesn't he suggest using all methods - including biotechnology - to increase drought resistance of crop varieties?
The answer to that last question, I think, says it all. I suspect Nabhan doesn't support use of biotechnology to solve the problem he sets up because his issue isn't really with the global warming effects on crop production per se, but rather it seems he sees an opportunity to re-engineer a food system to his liking using subsidies, regulations, and Strikeforce Initiatives, without giving much thought into the effects of such a system on global hunger and the price consumers pay for food. It is all together fanciful to imagine the food system he proposes as bring down food prices, which, ironically, Nabhan, sets up as being the problem he aims to solve.