WebMD Misleads on Agriculture and Climate Change

Published June 26, 2019

Some readers of a recent article published by WebMD titled “Will Climate Change Cause Food Sources to Dwindle?” might be fooled into thinking the author intends to carefully weigh the evidence about this important topic.  But a closer look clearly reveals the purpose of the story is to promote a one-sided, sloppy, alarmist view of the purported threat posed to agriculture from climate change.

Feeding the world’s hungry ranks among the greatest difficulties humankind has experienced throughout its history, and with the world’s population expected to top nine billion around 2100, this challenge could grow in the coming decades. Unfortunately, the WebMD article ignored the overwhelming amount of data and evidence that increased carbon dioxide levels and the modest warming Earth has experienced is helping feed the world, not leading to starvation or malnutrition.

Below are just several of the facts WebMD ignored in its effort to scare its readers into believing their use of fossil fuels is contributing to a food apocalypse.

For starters, most plant life arose when carbon dioxide levels were much higher than they are today. During the most recent ice age, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels fell to dangerously low levels — just 180 parts per million (ppm). Plants begin to die when carbon dioxide reaches 150 ppm, because they are unable to use sunlight to photosynthesize food from carbon dioxide and water. After Earth emerged from the most recent ice age, carbon dioxide levels rebounded, to approximately 280 ppm, still far below the levels existing when plant life began to colonize the land.

The addition of approximately 135 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by humans — through the burning of fossil fuels, slash-and-burn agriculture, and various other actions — has helped reduce hunger immeasurably.

Since the widespread development and use of fossil fuels, world poverty and hunger have declined rapidly. Despite the addition of 3.2 billion people to the planet since 1968, poverty and hunger have plummeted at a faster rate than at any time in human history.

Forty-four percent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty in 1981. Since then, the share of people living in extreme poverty fell below 10 percent in 2015. And although 815 million people worldwide are still undernourished, according to the United Nations, the number of hungry people has declined by two billion since 1990. Additionally, research shows there is now 17 percent more food available per person than there was 30 years ago — all during the period of purportedly dangerous climate change.

A study cited by NASA recently confirms the Earth is greening significantly, with forests, grasslands, gardens, and areas of flowering plants expanding as carbon dioxide increases the rate of photosynthesis and improves plants’ water-use efficiency and pest resistance. The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found, “From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

This study confirms what several reports from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) have concluded over the years: Human carbon dioxide emissions have greened the earth, transforming some former desert regions into verdant oases of greenery, and contributed to record crop yields.

World-Grain.com reported in 2016 world cereal production broke records for the third straight year, exceeding the previous record yield, recorded in 2015, by 1.2 percent and topping the record yield recorded in 2014 by 1.5 percent. In September 2018, FarmWeekNow reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated the United States corn yield would top 181.3 bushels per acre, a new record, up 4.7 bushels per acre from 2017. USDA estimated nationwide corn production at 14.827 billion bushels, the second-largest amount on record, behind only the 15.1 billion bushels produced in 2016. USDA’s soybean estimates also reached record levels of 4.69 billion bushels of production nationwide, with a record yield of 52.8 bushels per acre, up 3.7 bushels from last year.

My Heartland Institute colleague James Taylor detailed in a recent American Thinker article, crop yields are setting records abroad as well, most importantly in developing countries, where food supplies are typically scarcest. Government data from India (2017 through 2018) and Bangladesh (2016), show rice and coarse cereal production set new record highs. The subcontinent’s growth in food production is part of a long-term trend as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased. Honduras set new records in recent years for its production of staple and commercial crops, such as coffee, maize, rice, and wheat.

As a May 2018 report by The Heartland Institute, “The Social Benefits of Fossil Fuels,” summed up, the “increase in atmospheric [carbon dioxide] concentration … caused by the historical burning of fossil fuels has likely increased agricultural production per unit [of] land area by 70 percent for C3 cereals [which include rice, wheat, oats, cotton, and evergreen trees], 28 percent for C4 cereals [which include sorghum, maize, and various grasses], 33 percent for fruits and melons, 62 percent for legumes, 67 percent for root and tuber crops, and 51 percent for vegetables.”

The reasons increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a modest warming are good for plants are myriad and not hard to find if only WebMD had tried. As NIPCC explains in Climate Change Reconsidered II, Biological Impacts, carbon dioxide increases plant fitness and flower pollination, helps plants develop more extensive root systems to extract greater amounts of nutrients from even poor quality soil, helps plants use water more efficiently by reducing the number and openness of stomata through which plants lose moisture during transpiration, and helps plants fight off pests by increasing production of natural substances that repel insects.

WebMD also parroted the popular but false claim that warming-induced crop failure was a reason for the Syrian civil war. Syria is part of an arid, desert region of the world where, for thousands of years, droughts have been the norm, not the exception. In fact, the entire region experienced the same drought as Syria, yet war did not break out in Iran, Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.

The battle for freedom against continued tyranny, not food shortages, was responsible for the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Syria and other countries around the same time. Indeed, as Taylor’s article points out, “United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization data show an approximately 50-percent increase in Syrian crop production since 1995. Moreover, the Arab Spring democracy uprisings in Syria and elsewhere, which climate alarmists blame on global warming, occurred in 2011, a year in which Syria produced its eighth highest crop yields in history.”

Surely WebMD should have considered at least some of these facts relevant to any accurate, balanced discussion of the effects of climate change on food production. Instead, the article betrayed its founders’ vision for the medical website as a trusted resource people can turn for accurate information on health-related matters.

[Originally Published at American Thinker]