August 15, 2015, by Alex Kirby
November 2013: The Philippines confronts the aftermath of super typhoon Haiyan
Image: By Kennedy, Liam via Wikimedia Commons
A British government scientific panel says increasingly frequent heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather threaten more – and more severe – global food crises. LONDON, 15 August, 2015 – Developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa which depend heavily on food imports will be worst hit by the increasingly extreme global weather, a report says, with the Middle East and North Africa also threatened, in this case by social unrest. In contrast, the authors say the impact on the world’s biggest economies is likely to be “muted”. But they think a serious crisis could occur as soon as 2016, with repercussions in many countries. They write: “We present evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing…preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040.” The report was jointly commissioned by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its Government Science and Innovation Network, with a foreword by the country’s former chief government scientist, Sir David King. He writes: “We know that the climate is changing and weather records are being broken all the time…The food system we increasingly rely on is a global enterprise. Up to now it’s been pretty robust and extreme weather has had limited impact on a global scale. But…the risks are serious and should be a cause for concern…
“We should be looking carefully at even very low probability situations, and the likelihood of the scenarios suggested in this report are far too significant to ignore.”
The report says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 global food demand will be 60% above today’s, with per capita demand also growing, and more meat-eating. In 2007/8 a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock levels, led to rapid food price inflation in the main internationally traded grains, as measured by the FAO Food Price Index. Prices rose by over 100%. A similar price spike occurred in 2010/11, partly driven by the weather in eastern Europe and Russia. In 2012, the worst drought to hit the American Midwest for half a century triggered comparable spikes in international maize and soya prices. There is good evidence, the report says, that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heat waves, are increasing significantly. Food production of the globally most important commodity crops (maize, soya, wheat and rice) comes from a small number of major producing countries.
Simultaneous extreme weather events in two or more of these regions – creating a multiple bread basket failure – would represent a serious production shock. There is an urgent need to understand the driving dynamics of linked problems such as the El Niño effect – which may be becoming more extreme – the report says. By examining production shocks in the recent past, the authors devised what they call “a plausible worst case scenario” – a simultaneous drought affecting maize and soya production, and another which damages wheat and rice harvests. More topically, they also describe what they say is a plausible worst case scenario for 2016. This involves a complex sequence, starting with a disappointing 2015 Indian monsoon, the loss of much of 2016’s Black Sea winter wheat crop, and then Russian and Ukrainian export bans. International wheat prices rise fast, prompting similar measures in south and central Asia and Argentina, and repercussions as far afield as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. In late spring a persistent drought starts in North America, affecting soya and maize forecasts and prices. Then a heatwave and drought hit the European wheat crop, leading to further rises across all cereals.
In early summer a second failure of the Indian monsoon unleashes panic in the rice market, where Asian households have been steadily hoarding. Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Nepal impose export restrictions. Major importers such as Nigeria, Malaysia and the Philippines place orders far above normal levels in a bid to calm domestic markets. The scenario ends with still more countries – Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia – imposing export bans. One of the report’s recommendations is that agriculture should adapt to a changing climate. That, it says, means productivity must be increased by reversing declines in yield growth and closing the gap between actual and attainable yields in the developing world, while also reducing agriculture’s environmental impact, including the depletion of fresh water and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. However, it says, given the increasing risk of extreme weather, this cannot come at the expense of production resilience. – Climate News Network
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.