41 Responses to The Economist: “The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Nobelist Krugman: “It sure looks like climate change is a major culprit” in the extreme weather that has run up food prices
The expert consensus on the key role that high food prices have played in MidEast protests continues to grow (see my multi-part series on food insecurity). Indeed, governments in the region themselves are so concerned about the threat of food insecurity to their stability, they are starting to stockpile grain, which, ironically, will further drive up prices, as The Economist explains in their February 3rd edition.
Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman also weighs in with a major NYT column, “Droughts, Floods and Food” (excerpted below), which also makes the connection I have been focusing on between extreme weather (driven in part by climate change) and food prices.
UPDATE: And don’t miss the UK Guardian‘s new piece today, “Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn.”
First though, the Wall Street Journal provided us some more insight into the role extreme weather is playing in the food-price run-up in their article last week, “When Will Russia Resume Grain Exports Again?”
Russia stopped grain exports last summer after the worst drought to hit the country in over a century ravaged the country’s harvest and cut production by nearly 40%. The ban sent shockwaves through international markets and propelled wheat prices to highs not seen since the 2007-08 food crisis.
That impact is, I think, well understood — see Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” But now it’s clear that the unprecedented heat wave and drought didn’t just devastate the country’s harvest at the time — it has hurt their current harvest:
Acreage for 2011 winter grains fell nearly 3 million hectares short of forecasts after the drought made the ground too hard to plant. In the Volga and South Ural regions, which account for around 20% of the total area seeded, the problems were particularly acute and plantings may need to be replaced in spring.
“Farmers are facing a huge problem to get their grain in the ground and have a decent crop for 2011,” said Peter Biermann, general manager of grain export operations at Swiss grain trader ASTON FFI.
The extraordinary devastation wrought by Russia’s drought should be especially worrisome to anyone concern about the future impacts of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. Tamino calculated (at length) that global warming made the Moscow heat wave roughly eight times more likely: “Without global warming, this once-in-a-century-or-two event would have been closer to a once-in-a-millenium event.”
On our current emissions path, Russia’s grain-export-ending heat wave and drought could become a once-every-decade event “” or even more frequent. And many other agricultural regions of the planet face even more devastating extended droughts that ultimately become permanent Dust Bowls:
- Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path
- U.S. southwest could see a 60-year drought like that of 12th century “” only hotter “” this century
- NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe
The WSJ takes it for granted that high food prices played a role in the MidEast unrest — and they are skeptical as a result that Russia will end its export ban anytime soon:
And with the possibility of an election in 2012 and food security rising up the global agenda as riots spread across North Africa, allowing precious grain out of the country could be political suicide….
Hussein Allidina, head of commodities research at Morgan Stanley, said that with disappointing domestic production, limited import availability from the European Union and low government stocks, exports look unlikely this year.
“Our balances suggest that Russia is increasingly likely to extend its export ban at least through the end of 2011 and perhaps longer,” he said.
The Economist‘s analysis takes similar view:
High food-price inflation has cut spending power across emerging economies … where keeping bellies full accounts for a much larger share of income than in rich countries. The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. The price of bread has shot up since last summer when a drought in Russia, one of the world’s largest wheat suppliers, hit harvests and prompted an export ban.
Analysts at Goldman Sachs point out that countries in the region may feel the need to head off political instability by spending to stockpile grain. Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Jordan have all stepped up efforts to build stockpiles. This could raise the pressure on other countries to hoard wheat, pushing prices even higher.
This vicious cycle is something that Lester Brown discussed with me in mid-January (see Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices). During a food crisis, having food for your populace becomes a top priority, and that causes hoarding, which in turn runs up food prices. In the short term, of course, someone could have a great harvest that temporarily alleviates the problem, but the longer term trends, including climate change, make food crises more and more inevitable.
And that brings us to Krugman’s article today on the “global food crisis”:
The consequences of this food crisis go far beyond economics. After all, the big question about uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Middle East isn’t so much why they’re happening as why they’re happening now. And there’s little question that sky-high food prices have been an important trigger for popular rage.
So what’s behind the price spike? American right-wingers (and the Chinese) blame easy-money policies at the Federal Reserve, with at least one commentator declaring that there is “blood on Bernanke’s hands.”
… But the evidence tells a different, much more ominous story. While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate “” which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.
… It’s true that growth in emerging nations like China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence rising demand for animal feed. It’s also true that agricultural raw materials, especially cotton, compete for land and other resources with food crops “” as does the subsidized production of ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both economic growth and bad energy policy have played some role in the food price surge.
Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of other commodities until last summer. Then the weather struck.
Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.
The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.
The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?
To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Ni±a “” a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Ni±a events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.
But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Ni±a was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.
As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.
The usual suspects will, of course, go wild over suggestions that global warming has something to do with the food crisis; those who insist that Ben Bernanke has blood on his hands tend to be more or less the same people who insist that the scientific consensus on climate reflects a vast leftist conspiracy.
But the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.
Yes, the usual suspects have gone wild over suggestions that global warming has anything to do with the food crisis. Ironically, these tend to be the same people who say that the best strategy for dealing with global warming is adaptation — but then they deny that there actually any serious impacts we need to adapt to, making adaptation a purely rhetorical strategy for dealing with global warming (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery: Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions”).
My favorite line of Krugman’s is from his blog post:
Obligatory disclaimer: no one event can be definitively assigned to climate change, just as you can’t necessarily claim that any one of the fender-benders taking place right now in central New Jersey was caused by the sheet of black ice currently coating our roads. But it sure looks like climate change is a major culprit. And it’s not just the FSU: extreme weather elsewhere, which again is the sort of thing you should expect from climate change, has played a role in bad harvest around the world.
The crucial bottom line remains: “Given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.” If we don’t act soon we will see 5 to 10 times as much warming this century as we did last century. And that is likely to make food insecurity a permanent proposition for billions of people.
UPDATE: The UK Guardian‘s piece today has some expert analysis on where we are and where we’re headed:
World leaders are ignoring potentially disastrous shortages of key crops, and their failures are fuelling political instability in key regions, food experts have warned.
The crises in those countries have served as a stark example of what can happen when food prices spiral out of control and add to existing political problems, said Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. “It’s easy to see how the food supply can translate directly into political unrest,” he said.
Richard Ferguson, global head of agriculture at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank specialising in emerging markets, said the problems were likely to spread. “Food prices are absolutely core to a lot of these disturbances. If you are 25 years old, with no access to education, no income and live in a politically repressed environment, you are going to be pretty angry when the price of food goes up the way it is.”
He said sharply rising food prices acted “as a catalyst” to foment political unrest, when added to other concerns such as a lack of democracy.
Brown warned that the longer term outlook was also bleak. Many arid countries have managed to boost their agricultural production by using underground water sources, but these are rapidly drying up. He cited Saudi Arabia, which has been self-sufficient in wheat for decades but whose wheat production is collapsing as the aquifer that fed the farms is depleted.
Water scarcity, combined with soil erosion, climate change, the diversion of food crops to make biofuels, and a growing population, were all putting unprecedented pressure on the world’s ability to feed itself, according to Brown. This would fuel political instability and could lead to unrest or conflicts, he said. “We have an entirely new situation in the world. We need to recognise this.”
Rising food prices in the next few months could trigger a wave of reactions from governments that would exacerbate the current problem, argued Maximo Torero, of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “The big danger is that you get political pressure on countries to put in place restrictions on food, such as export bans on grains. We need to be very careful, as the situation is very tight and any additional pressure could take us to a very similar position to the one we had in 2007 and 2008.”
There were widespread food riots in 2008 in Africa, Latin America and some Asian countries, as soaring grain prices put staple foods out of reach of millions of poor people.
Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, urged politicians to begin to tackle some of the root causes of food insecurity. “It’s not surprising that you are seeing people coming out on to the street to protest, given the price rises. You are going to see a lot more of this unless governments start addressing the fundamentals, such as climate change, water scarcity and dependence on oil. We need to create more resilient systems of agriculture for the future.”
The problem could not be more urgent, added Brown, who warned that politicians around the world had ignored food security and water scarcity for years. “We are quite literally on the edge of chaos. Whether we can draw back from the edge, and create food price stability – I don’t know.”