Talking agriculture and climate change at MIT 

February 12, 2014

MIT students and faculty interested in climate change’s impact on agriculture and food production gathered on the University’s campus Tuesday to hear a half-day of dialogue in a Food Symposium sponsored by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. In his keynote address, Cargill’s Vice Chairman Paul Conway said that when faced with the potential impact of climate change one should think about the Stockdale Paradox and confront brutal reality at the same time one remains optimistic. He also said that climate change was a critical issue for the company and understanding it would help Cargill adapt and deliver on its strategy to be balanced, diverse and resilient.

Conway’s remarks focused on the trends impacting food security, including urbanization, changing diets and biofuels. He fielded questions about how intensification can be done in a sustainable way and how Cargill could help reduce food waste.

The topic of climate change and its potential impact on food production is timely, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to issue in March its latest assessment of the impact of rising temperature and climate variability on the global food system. The report was leaked last week, and the New York Times featured a story about the potential risks to food supplies.

Other panelists included Thomas Hertel, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, who discussed the impact of population, impact of income growth on food prices, and the impact of rising temperature on yields for wheat and maize. Hertel concluded that agricultural productivity growth holds the key to protecting the environment and improving food security, but climate change will make this harder. And he believes that rising incomes and declining real prices offer the prospect of reducing the number of malnourished in the world significantly.

Cargill has been a sponsor of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Climate Change since 2008. MIT’s program is one of several university programs Cargill funds that are helping the company better understand climate science, impact on crop yields, adaptability, sustainability and implications for food security.