The Pasta Crisis

By Hertsgaard, Mark | Newsweek, December 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Pasta Crisis


Hertsgaard, Mark, Newsweek


Byline: Mark Hertsgaard

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.

Hurricane Sandy's recent devastation of New York and neighboring states reminded Americans of what Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005: global warming makes weather more extreme, and extreme weather can be extremely dangerous. But flooding coastlines aren't our only worry. Climate change is also imperiling the very foundation of human existence: our ability to feed ourselves.

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.

By 2050, scientists project, the world's leading wheat belts--the U.S. and Canadian Midwest, northern China, India, Russia, and Australia--on average will experience, every other year, a hotter summer than the hottest summer now on record. Wheat production in that period could decline between 23 and 27 percent, reports the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), unless swift action is taken to limit temperature rise and develop crop varieties that can tolerate a hotter world.

"International agricultural research centers and the private sector have woken up to the fact that higher temperatures are almost inevitable and they have little in their genetic toolbox to deal with them," says Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at IFPRI. "We are all worried."

The record-breaking summer of 2012--which brought the hottest July in U.S. history and the worst drought in 50 years (a drought that continues to afflict 60 percent of the nation)--hints at what may lie ahead. Corn and soybean yields plummeted in 2012, driving up world food prices, increasing hunger, and triggering protests in Indonesia that recalled the street riots that afflicted dozens of nations after the last big food-price jump in 2007-08.

"We stressed our farm crops this year pretty strongly, and many of them almost folded," says Jay Fuhrer, a U.S. Department of Agriculture extension agent in North Dakota. "Does that concern you as a consumer? It should."

As it happens, North Dakota, where Doug Opland has been growing durum wheat since he was a kid, is one of the centers of global pasta production. North Dakota agriculture officials will tell you, accurately, that their state produces some of the highest-quality durum in the world, boasting both a high protein count and the pale golden color demanded by discriminating pasta lovers. Durum, after all, thrives under conditions of limited rainfall and cooler temperatures, and North Dakota boasts both.

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