Climate change to cause social unrest through spikes in food prices, says Roger Johnson, NFU president

Ilario D'Amato
10 September 2015

NEW YORK: How will climate change affect food production and security? And is farming part of the solution? In an exclusive interview for The Climate Group's new digital channel Climate TV, Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union in the United States says he sees an uncertain future “punctuated with a lot of extreme events” such as flooding which will trigger food price spikes and social unrest, and presses world leaders to find solutions today.

“Agriculture is inherently a highly variable business environment. Weather has always been a variable, if you increase that even more you just increase the likelihood that you’re going to have production shortfalls – and not uniformly,” the NFU President warns.


Roger Johnson’s message underscores why this year’s Climate Week NYC is more critical than ever, as it is “important that the general public understand it is becoming more and more difficult to produce food because of the increasing variability that is a direct result of climate change”.

 “It is likely that America is going to do quite well in terms of feeding itself,” underlines the NFU President, “but the real question is how much production is going to be made available for export. We have a relatively small population here, given the amount of resources that we have. So, I think America is going to be in a better spot than a lot of other places around the world.”

“Nonetheless, when you have this increased variability, these additional stressors that take place, you have likely a need for higher capital – and that makes it more likely that smaller family farmers end up getting squeezed out of the picture.”


Such disruption bears a social, environmental and economic cost. “In agriculture we’re pretty good at changing and adapting pretty quickly – and we’ll continue to adapt,” says Roger Johnson. “But all of that implies costs, not just on the farmers and the ranchers, but to society as a whole. […] You’re likely to see more spikes in food prices, perhaps like we had in 2008-09 when we had a production lower than expected.”

There’s a lot that has been said upon the surge of the Arab spring that occurred following the big run-up of prices that we had in 2008 and 2009,” says Roger Johnson.

“As you see more variability in production, particularly shortages, you are likely to see more uncertainty, more unrest among the general population.”

“If there are more and more people who are unable to afford food and the other basics necessaries to support life, you have unrest – particularly in countries that already have a large population relative to a low-resource space, less able to feed themselves right now, with a lot of population in very low income categories. You add stress to that, you double the price of food, and that’s a major impact.”


Climate change is already affecting crop fields around the world, particularly in Western parts of the US most recently due to a devastating series of fires.

“It’s just one of the things we’re going to deal with,” says Roger Johnson. “All the available scientific evidence surrounding climate change has been saying for years that we are likely to see more and more of these catastrophic events. I’m not here to say that these fires are absolutely the result of climate change, but it is highly likely that there are more fires, more intense, fed by more dry fuel – all of which is exacerbated by the continuing increase in the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases that are going into our atmosphere.”


US farmers are responding to such threats with strong adaptation, which “continues whether farmers think it’s a result of climate change or not, and in a fairly dramatic fashion,” says Roger Johnson. “Farmers use different kinds of technologies […] and we are continuing to learn more about how to manage agriculture, and farmers are adapting pretty rapidly to that.

“But that is not to suggest we should do anything to try to slow down the change that is occurring in the climate as well. I think it’s a mixture of both: adapting and mitigating those impacts that we need to be employing.”

Policymakers must then “send the right signals so that farmers will continue to do the kind of things that are good for society, besides being good for their economic bottom line”, of which Roger Johnson pinpoints carbon cap-and-trade legislation.


“At the end of the day, anyone who is farming for a living is going to make a living. Right now we are looking at very low commodity prices and many farmers are struggling financially because the commodity prices have dropped so low that they are below the cost production. We have to have a system that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. We’re going to have a balance.”

A balance that can hopefully been reached at the important COP21 climate negotiations in Paris later this year?

“It is important for anyone in this globe, not just farmers,” he says. “We must deal in a very dramatic way with greenhouse gas emissions, and there should be a role for absolutely anyone to play in reducing those emissions.

Roger Johnson concludes with a message to the world leaders: “We need to deal with this problem. It is the problem that this generation faces, it’s probably the largest problem the world faces right now. It needs serious people to sit down and propose, develop and implement serious solutions to it.”


Our digital countdown to Climate Week NYC 2015 runs from September 1-20.

Each day The Climate Group is releasing exclusive conversations with key figures from the worlds of business and politics and beyond – through video, social media and blogs – as well as expert briefings. Follow @ClimateGroup for the latest.

See the full gallery of #CWNYC graphics and tweets to join the countdown, by clicking below.

#CWNYC 2015

Climate Week NYC is a key event in the international calendar that brings together leading governments, investors, businesses, innovators and opinion formers. The Climate Group launched Climate Week NYC in 2009, and has acted as the secretariat since its inception.

Host to more than 100 affiliate events from September 21-28, Climate Week NYC 2015 is the collaborative space for climate events in support of the UN Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. | @ClimateWeekNYC | #CWNYC

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