Wheat: The Goldilocks Crop and the Impending Extinction of Pasta

It is apparently becoming too warm to grow wheat…

Bakken Oil Boom and Climate Change Threaten the Future of Pasta

Dec 10, 2012 12:00 AM EST

Temperatures are rising. Rainfalls are shifting. Droughts are intensifying. What will we eat when wheat won’t grow.

A world without pasta seems inconceivable. Mac-and-cheese-loving children across the United States would howl in protest. Italy might suffer a cultural heart attack. Social unrest could explode in northern China, where noodles are the main staple.

But if humans want to keep eating pasta, we will have to take much more aggressive action against global warming. Pasta is made from wheat, and a large, growing body of scientific studies and real-world observations suggest that wheat will be hit especially hard as temperatures rise and storms and drought intensify in the years ahead.

[…]

Three grains—wheat, corn, and rice—account for most of the food humans consume. All three are already suffering from climate change, but wheat stands to fare the worst in the years ahead, for it is the grain most vulnerable to high temperatures. That spells trouble not only for pasta but also for bread, the most basic food of all. (Pasta is made from the durum variety of wheat, while bread is generally made from more common varieties, such as red spring.)

“Wheat is a cool-season crop. High temperatures are negative for its growth and quality, no doubt about it,” says Frank Manthey, a professor at North Dakota State University who advises the North Dakota Wheat Commission. Already, a mere 1 degree Fahrenheit of global temperature rise over the past 50 years has caused a 5.5 percent decline in wheat production, according to David Lobell, a professor at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.

[…]

Newsweek

This is really funny because it wasn’t that long ago that it was too cold to grow wheat…

Little Ice Age

by Edna Sun

February 15 , 2005 — It was only a few hundred years ago that the earth experienced its last ice age. Global temperatures started falling during the 1300s and hit their lowest points in the late 1700s and early 1800s. New Yorkers could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island across a frozen harbor, while Londoners held “Frost Fairs” on a solid Thames River. Glaciers advanced in China, New Zealand, and Peru, and snow covered Ethiopian peaks. Diseases, aided by the change in climate, spread quickly throughout Europe and Asia. Iced waters delayed shipping from ports, growing glaciers engulfed farms and villages, tree lines receded, and agriculture deteriorated, leading to centuries of poor harvests, famine, and social unrest. Though the average global temperature dropped only one to two degrees Celsius below what they are today, the cold spell nevertheless drastically affected life at this time.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Global temperatures naturally fluctuate slightly from year to year. However, in the past 10,000 years, there have been three relatively long global cold spells. The Little Ice Age (LIA) is the most recent and best documented, especially in Europe

It may have had a greater effect on history than its predecessors because it immediately followed several centuries of unusually warm temperatures. Between 800 and 1200, Europe basked in a warm spell known as the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP); temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than they are today.

[…]

Fatal Harvest

During the LIA, summers were wet and unusually cold and the growing season was shortened. Widespread crop failure resulted in famine that killed millions of people. To avoid starvation, people would eat the planting seed for next season, which created more of a shortage the following year.

During the MWP European farmers primarily grew cereal grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, which flourished. But the long thin stalks of these crops made them vulnerable to the strong winds and heavy rainfall that came during the LIA. The temperature drop in northern Europe made it difficult to raise these grains and many farmers gave up trying. Less grain was produced, creating a severe shortage and raising prices.

[…]

PBS

“[A] mere 1 degree Fahrenheit of global temperature rise over the past 50 years has caused a 5.5 percent decline in wheat production.”  Yet wheat and cereal production flourished during the Medieval Warm Period, when “temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than they are today”…

Obviously wheat can’t handle any temperature. The LIA was too cold. Today it’s too warm for wheat, even though the wheat flourished during the warmer MWP.  I guess the Goldilocks temperature for wheat must have occurred sometime between 1975 and 1980, since Newsweek reported that we were on the verge of a new ice age in 1975 and anthropogenic global warming began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (intentional sarcasm).

Whenever I run into an Alarmists Gone Wild non sequitur, I always check the math.

Wheat production data for the period 1961-2010 are available from FAOSTAT and temperature data can easily be downloaded from Wood For Trees.

Figure 1. Wheat yield and production have more than doubled over the last 50 years. Data sources: FAOSTAT and Hadley Center & UEA CRU (via Wood for Trees). Yield is in hectograms per hectare (Hg/Ha), area harvested is in hectares (Ha) and production is in tonnes.

This explains why wheat liked the Medieval Warm Period and disliked the Little Ice Age. 

The only explanation for this sort of nonsense, is Alarmists Gone Wild…

“Wheat is a cool-season crop. High temperatures are negative for its growth and quality, no doubt about it,” says Frank Manthey, a professor at North Dakota State University who advises the North Dakota Wheat Commission. Already, a mere 1 degree Fahrenheit of global temperature rise over the past 50 years has caused a 5.5 percent decline in wheat production, according to David Lobell, a professor at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.

Wheat yield and production have more than doubled over the past 50 years.

In fairness to Mr. Hertsgaard, someone in another Internet forum I frequent suggested that maybe the article was just referring to durum production in North Dakota. The headline did mention the Bakken (mostly in North Dakota) and cited a durum expert (Frank Manthey, a professor at North Dakota State University) and durum is used in pasta.

Durum is a cool-season crop and that warmer summers might have an impact on North Dakota durum production. Production and yield data are available from the North Dakota Wheat Commission.  A cross-plot of North Dakota durum yield vs. seasonal temperatures does support the claim that warmer summers could cause a drop in durum yield…

A 1 °F rise in average summer temperature could reduce durum yield by 1.6 bushels per acre. That’s in the neighborhood of a 5.5% decline.

However, all of the global warming in North Dakota over the past 50 years has occurred in winter…

Winter warming has no correlation to durum yield (R² = 0.0194).

Durum production and acreage planted increased from 1961-1981 and then have decreased since 1981, while yield has steadily increased.

Total North Dakota wheat production has increased over the last 50 years.

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2 Responses to “Wheat: The Goldilocks Crop and the Impending Extinction of Pasta”

  1. David Middleton Says:

    In fairness to Mr. Hertsgaard, someone in another Internet forum I frequent suggested that maybe the article was just referring to durum production in North Dakota. The headline did mention the Bakken (mostly in North Dakota) and cited a durum expert (Frank Manthey, a professor at North Dakota State University) and durum is used in pasta.

    Durum is a cool-season crop and that warmer summers might have an impact on North Dakota durum production. Production and yield data are available from the North Dakota Wheat Commission. A cross-plot of North Dakota durum yield vs. seasonal temperatures does support the claim that warmer summers could cause a drop in durum yield…

    <North Dakota Durum Yield vs. Seasonal Temperatures

    A 1 °F rise in average summer temperature could reduce durum yield by 1.6 bushels per acre. That’s in the neighborhood of a 5.5% decline.

    However, all of the “global warming” in North Dakota over the past 50 years has occurred in winter…

    North Dakota Seasonal Average Temperatures

    Winter warming has no correlation to durum yield (R² = 0.0194).

    Durum production and acreage planted increased from 1961-1981 and then have decreased since 1981, while yield has steadily increased.

    Total North Dakota wheat production has increased over the last 50 years.

    North Dakota Historical Wheat Production

  2. David Middleton Says:

    In fairness to Mr. Hertsgaard, someone in another Internet forum I frequent suggested that maybe the article was just referring to durum production in North Dakota. The headline did mention the Bakken (mostly in North Dakota) and cited a durum expert (Frank Manthey, a professor at North Dakota State University) and durum is used in pasta.

    Durum is a cool-season crop and that warmer summers might have an impact on North Dakota durum production. Production and yield data are available from the North Dakota Wheat Commission. A cross-plot of North Dakota durum yield vs. seasonal temperatures does support the claim that warmer summers could cause a drop in durum yield…

    North Dakota Durum Yield vs. Seasonal Temperatures

    A 1 °F rise in average summer temperature could reduce durum yield by 1.6 bushels per acre. That’s in the neighborhood of a 5.5% decline.

    However, all of the “global warming” in North Dakota over the past 50 years has occurred in winter…

    North Dakota Seasonal Average Temperatures

    Winter warming has no correlation to durum yield (R² = 0.0194).

    Durum production and acreage planted increased from 1961-1981 and then have decreased since 1981, while yield has steadily increased.

    Total North Dakota wheat production has increased over the last 50 years.

    North Dakota Historical Wheat Production

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