Extreme Weather and the Rising Cost of Food

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

 Last month, the international relief agency Oxfam issued a briefing entitled Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices, which deals with the impact of extreme weather events on global food prices. The briefing, a summary of a longer research report,[1] makes an important distinction between two kinds of effects that climate change will have on food production as our planet grows ever warmer. The first, the one with which agronomists and climate scientists have primarily been concerned, is the incremental decline in average crop yields caused by gradual increases in global temperature and changes in precipitation patterns.

As temperature rises to a certain optimal range, crop yields rise proportionally until a peak is reached, at which point, with further increases in temperature, they start to decline. Studies of rice harvests in the Philippines, for example, show that for each degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum during the growing season, yields of rice decrease by 10%. A similar pattern has been noted for other staples. Drops in production inevitably cause food prices to escalate. Research suggests that the average price of staples such as corn could more than double over the next twenty years, with up to half the increase due to changes in average temperatures and rainfall patterns.

Forecasts about the long-range effect of gradual climate change on average food prices are already disturbing enough. However, the report says, to project food prices in the future based solely on incremental climate change “tells only half the story.” A more complete picture must also take into account the second effect of climate change on food production, the sharp and sudden drop in productivity caused by harsher and more frequent extreme weather events. As global warming continues, these are bound to occur more often and in more unpredictable ways, leading to price volatility.

In the U.S. we already witnessed the impact of extreme weather on food production this past summer, when surging temperatures and prolonged drought enveloped the Midwest and the Great Plains states, decimating yields of corn, wheat, and soybean throughout the region. Since corn and soy enter the food chain through a variety of channels, including meat and dairy, prices of many commodities are on a rising arc that still has months to go before it peaks. The U.S. drought was not an isolated event. Russia witnessed a long drought in 2010, which compelled the country to restrict exports of wheat. The U.K. experienced the heaviest ever rainfall in the spring of 2012 and the warmest autumn months in 2011. China, too, had massive flooding in 2012, as did Pakistan and Southeast Asia the preceding year. Over the past few years the Caribbean and the American South have been hit by exceptionally brutal hurricanes which, in addition to their impact on food production, have also taken lives and caused immense damage to homes and property.

Such a concatenation of unusual weather cannot be ascribed entirely to chance. While individual droughts, heat waves, floods, and tornadoes can’t always be pinned on global warming, the probability of such events rises as we burn more fossil fuels and continue heating up the planet. As the briefing puts it, “pumping emissions into the atmosphere is loading the climate dice and increasing the probability of extreme weather.”

One salient point that the report drives home is that the volatility in food prices caused by extreme weather events hits poor populations the hardest. For people in the traditional world, who might spend 50% to 75% of the family income on food, smaller yields due to bizarre weather are likely to cause devastating spikes in the prices of essential commodities. When food prices rise beyond the reach of strained budgets, malnutrition sets in, resulting in crippling illnesses, starvation, and premature death. For children, in particular, sufficient food intake is critical to ensure good health throughout their lives. When children don’t obtain food in the quantities their young bodies require, their growth will be stunted and their vital organs impaired. Malnutrition will further impede the development of their brains, diminishing their cognitive and emotional functions.

Not only will high food prices result in malnutrition and hunger-related deaths, but they also carry a high political risk. Rising prices could set off political and social upheavals, as desperately hungry populations turn to political opportunists who exploit their plight with promises of relief and threaten the security of more affluent nations. Increasing populations and diminishing food supplies are also likely to cause mass migrations and to ignite regional conflicts rooted in old ethnic and religious antagonism.

The report uses modeling techniques to project scenarios that register the impact of climate change and extreme weather events on food prices in the developing world over the next two decades. These projections suggest that over this period the world will become even more dependent on the U.S. for wheat and corn than it is today. For this reason, a drought in the U.S. similar to the one we experienced this year could push up world export prices for wheat and corn to levels that would hit poor import-dependent countries painfully hard, especially when their own crop yields are likely to decline as a result of incremental climate change.

According to the report, Sub-Saharan Africa will rely more on locally and regionally produced food crops than on imports, and thus international shocks—such as drought or floods in exporting nations—will pose less of a threat than extreme weather events occurring locally. Weather-related shocks in the region could push up the prices of essential commodities to a level ordinary consumers would find hard to meet. This could easily lead to social and political instability. The scenarios for Asia depict more frequent droughts in India and more severe floods in Southeast Asia, two regions that export rice. Such events would lead to sharp increases in the price of processed rice on the global market, adversely affecting rice-consuming countries in the developing world, particularly Central Asia and West Africa.

The briefing delivers a stark but necessary reminder that we must act quickly to halt global warming: “Our planet is heading for average global warming of 2.5–5°C this century. It is time to face up to and act on the implications this holds for levels of hunger and malnutrition among the most vulnerable people on our planet.” This is no time for apathy, self-absorption, or blind optimism. Global warming is ever on the rise, with potentially catastrophic consequences for us all. Transforming the climate is not like changing a flat tire. A long, extended process is involved that takes centuries, even millennia, before the results are felt.

The burden of change falls mainly on the major industrial powers, which bear the heaviest responsibility for the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere. This is both an ethical duty and a pragmatic need. As moral beings we must be willing to hear the cries of desperation rising up from the billions of people around the world who are suffering the consequences of our own reckless greed and irresponsible policies. As thinking beings, we should have enough sense to realize that our own well-being is at stake and depends on acting decisively, with full use of our intelligence to clear a way out of impending catastrophe. It’s a pity that the industrialized nations look on climate treaty negotiations as little more than an obstacle course through which they must pass unchecked, and then continue with the familiar round of hectic production and consumption.

Here in the U.S. we have to remember that while we may be better off economically than many other nations, we live on the same planet and eventually will reap the fruits of what we sow. We can’t go on in our merry way indulging our fascination with ever more innovation, ever more clever and powerful gadgetry, while pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere. We have to pause, reflect back on ourselves, and consider changing course. Too much is at stake to persist along our present tracks.

The process of transformation would entail making the transition to clean and renewable sources of energy. It would entail replacing aggressive industrial agriculture, with its gargantuan appetite for fossil fuels and water, with small-scale, ecologically friendly approaches to food production, so much more sustainable and resilient. It would entail forsaking our meat-heavy diets, which require massive inputs of grains and water, with largely plant-based diets, thereby freeing land and water for hungry populations to grow crops to feed themselves. Above all, in place of the neoliberal creed with its glorification of limitless profit and private gratification, it would entail adopting a new code of values that gives primacy to community, compassion, and care for others, including the nonhuman species that share this planet with us.

[1]               The full report, called Extreme Weather Events and Crop Price Spikes in a Changing Climate: Illustrative Global Simulation Scenarios, was written by Dirk Willenbockel of the Institute of Development Studies, U.K. It can be downloaded from Oxfam’s website: http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/reports.

One response to “Extreme Weather and the Rising Cost of Food

  1. Rising food prices, reduced production, desertification, and hunger are just some of the stressors resulting from climate change. We can also expect to see drought/flooding cycles and other extreme weather. The United States has a very well-developed infrastructure, yet look what happened because of hurricane Katrina — now imagine that repeated globally. Rising sea levels will displace entire populations, especially in Island based populations — who will accept the refugees? As the ice caps melt, new territories, resources and trade routes will open up to be claimed by surrounding nations. A worst-case example of ecocide driving genocide is Easter Island (see Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”). Easter Island was catastrophic because they had nowhere to go, no reprieve. Wouldn’t this be the case if global ecocide were to occur? It gives a whole new meaning to “eat the rich.”