UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, worlds largest producer

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"UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, worlds largest producer"

FAO also warns floods and heavy rains in Southern Afria “threaten food security”

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued an alert Tuesday that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and was even resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.

The state-run news media in China warned Monday that the country’s major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years and said Tuesday that Shandong Province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month.

World wheat prices are already surging and have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

As Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, put it in December, “The term ’100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.”

The climate impact deniers are having a field day.  With record-smashing extreme weather around the globe destroying crops and helping to run up food prices, there are more and more opportunities to deny that human-caused climate change is actually having any impacts that one would ever have to adapt to (see Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change“).

While some quote irrelevant decades-old data, the world is suffering from the fact that we are beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in many arenas — and close to the edge on others — according to scientists.  That means when we have the hottest and wettest year on record — and multiple extreme events — the global food system will be pushed to the breaking point.

As agricultural economist Lester Brown said yesterday, “I think we are seeing some of the early effects of climate change on food security.”  In the same story, retired vice admiral Dennis McGinn, a member of the military board of advisors of the Center for Naval Analysis, said “The adverse effects of bad weather caused by climate change act as a threat multiplier for instability in critical parts of the world.”

The FAO also warned yesterday, “rising waters threaten food security“:

Thousands of hectares of agricultural land and crops have been damaged by floods and heavy rains in parts of southern Africa, and more damage may occur in the coming weeks  if above normal rains persist.

This is raising concern about the food security of the affected population in the poorer parts of the sub-region over the coming months.

With the rainy season still only half way through, and with the cyclone season due to peak in February, several agricultural areas along the rivers in southern African countries remain at high risk of flooding, including portions of Botswana, Lesotho Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Food insecurity already critical

“Food insecurity levels are already critical in the affected areas of some of these countries and floods will only further worsen the ability of poor farmers to cope and feed their families in the coming months,” said Cindy Holleman, FAO Regional Emergency Coordinator for Southern Africa. FAO is working with regional and national early warning systems to monitor the evolution in major river basins and to assess the impact on food crops.

Meanwhile, much of the media seems unable to draw any fine distinctions whatsoever.  If you point out that global warming is contributing to extreme weather events that are helping to drive up food prices, which in turn are one factor in MidEast protests, then even if you are Nobel-prize winning economist, you end up with this headline in The Atlantic:

Paul Krugman Blames Global Warming for Middle East Uprisings

Not!

Meanwhile, over at DotEarth, where I’m interviewed, we get a similar reductio ad absurdum in a piece titled, “Egypt, Inkblots, Agendas and Feeding 9 Billion.”  The word “inkblot” is meant to suggest that in fact it’s impossible to have any idea what’s really going on, so one person’s interpretation is the same as any other.  Silly stuff.

It’s just a debate between “techno-cornucopians convinced that innovation and efficiency will feed 9 billion prospering people and enviro-calamatists convinced the cliff is nigh, or we’re already over it.”  Not even the mildest distinction is allowed, that the issue isn’t whether the “cliff [undefined] is nigh [undefined], or we’re already over it” — the issue is whether failure to act aggressively this decade — and even more aggressively in the next one — to reduce emissions makes it all but impossible to plausibly stop catastrophic climate impacts.

And then, in the comments, we get this highlighted humdinger by Revkin himself:

While talking about the state of the world, and human affairs, with Brad Allenby at Arizona State last week, I made the following statement, which applies here:

Why is it that there always seems to be an inverse relationship between the definitiveness of an assertion and its credibility?

Huh?  Did a former science reporter actually write that?  And use the word “always”?

It is the whole point of science to allow us to make credible assertions as definitively as possible.  Let’s not even discuss the basic laws of physics, which are quite definitive and credible.   Even on climate science, we have the U.S. National Academy of Sciences:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems”¦.

Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.

Sounds like a very definitive assertion to me.  And highly credible.

That doesn’t mean every credible scientific statement is definitive.  In the arena of climate change making recent weather more extreme, I’m not certain I’d use the word ‘definitive’, but I ran through the many leading scientist who have made the case in this post.  Here’s a pretty definitive and credible assertion, from Kevin Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section:

“… there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

So let’s move beyond the straw men and reductio ad absurdum.

There is a good story in PRI on this subject, “Egyptian protests, climate change, and global food prices” (with audio), which notes:

The throngs of protestors in the streets of Cairo this week have a host of grievances. There are the decades of authoritarian rule of course, and the lack of political expression or economic opportunity. But the uprising grew in part out of protests against high food prices.

Food price inflation in Egypt was over 20 percent last year. In particular, there’s been a big squeeze from the rising global price of wheat. New York global investment manager Vincent Truglia says depending on how you measure it, the price of wheat went up between 50 and 70 percent in 2010.

“This has just devastated Egyptian budgets,” says Truglia, who is managing director of global economic research at Granite Springs Asset Management.

Egypt is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, and the global wheat market received a number of nasty shocks recently. The worst came last summer, when Russia was hit by an unprecedented drought and heat wave that destroyed 40 percent of its wheat harvest.

Russia abruptly banned exports, and Egypt, which had just signed a big wheat deal with Russia, was left scrambling….

“I think we are seeing some of the early effects of climate change on food security,” says veteran environmental analyst Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute. In particular, Brown says the heat wave that led to the collapse of Russia’s wheat harvest was no ordinary weather event.

“If someone had told me that there was likely to be a heat wave in Russia in which the average temperature would be 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm — that’s pushing the envelope. I mean FOUR degrees would be a lot.”

Brown and many others say the Russian heat wave only one of several recent events effecting global food supply that likely were linked to climate change. And he believes that the stresses these events are putting on food supplies are contributing to unrest around the world.

“You can’t prove that link,” Brown says. “But you can say it is highly likely that that is the case.”

… Brown has some surprising compatriots.

Among them is retired vice admiral Dennis McGinn. McGinn is a member of the military board of advisors of the Center for Naval Analysis, which wrote an influential 2007 report on the security implications of climate change.*

“The adverse effects of bad weather caused by climate change act as a threat multiplier for instability in critical parts of the world,” admiral McGinn says.

Like Brown, McGinn says you can rarely draw a straight line of causation between climate change and political upheaval. There are usually many underlying causes, he says, but climate change may well be one of them.

“If you have long term droughts and crop failures, and in other parts of the world too much water in the form of flooding, you have added pressure to the already existing fault lines in fragile societies with fragile governments,” McGinn says. “And certainly Egypt would fall under that category.”

Duh.

I’ll discuss the implications of China importing a significant amount of wheat in a later post, but these facts in the NYT story are noteworthy:

With $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, nearly three times that of Japan, the country with the second-largest reserves, China has ample buying power to prevent any serious food shortages.

They can buy whatever they need to buy, and they can outbid anyone,” Mr. Zeigler said. China’s self-sufficiency in grain prevented world food prices from moving even higher when they spiked three years ago, he said.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said Tuesday that 12.75 million acres of China’s 35 million acres of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water.

Chinese state news media are describing the drought in increasingly dire terms. “Minimal rainfall or snow this winter has crippled China’s major agricultural regions, leaving many of them parched,” Xinhua reported. “Crop production has fallen sharply, as the worst drought in six decades shows no sign of letting up.”

If this turns into another once in a century drought, China obviously pay what ever it needs to to feed its people and avoid food riots.

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24 Responses to UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, worlds largest producer

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    China lifts farm subsidies
    Nation encourages more grain output to fight food-price inflation

    SHANGHAI—China’s government outlined farm subsidies and other new support on Wednesday aimed at encouraging grain production as the country braces for the possibility of a weak wheat crop that could further exacerbate a global food inflation scare. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703716904576133961987047574.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    Forget petrol based fertilizer!

    Consider Biochar the natural and most potent solution do boost crop yields and at the same time bring crop security, because for example of water storage capacities. What we have here is a four fold win situation, it just needs to be rolled out at large.

  2. Tom Lenz says:

    NW Arkansas is recovering this morning from a record setting 24+ inches of snow in some areas.

    Here we go.

  3. paulm says:

    Things coming to a head. All we need now is a report that a huge ice shelf has broken loose….
    Bets on 2015?

  4. David Schonberger says:

    Hey Joe, it looks like there might be a sentence fragment in the post:
    That means when we have the hottest and wettest year on record — and multiple extreme events — the global food system. The global food systems does what?

    Best,
    David

  5. GFW says:

    There’s another fragment type problem in the headline itself.
    “UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, world’s largest producer it is”. How about making that: “UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, the world’s largest producer”

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

    The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/feb/08/saudi-oil-reserves-overstated-wikileaks

    [JR: Post coming.]

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Mat Simmons wrote 4 years ago -

    Twilight in the Desert:
    The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

    http://www.twilightinthedesert.com/

    The factual basis of the book is over 200 technical papers published over the last 20 years which individually detail problems with particular wells or particular fields, but which collectively demonstrate that the entire Saudi oil system is ” old and fraying.” Based on his analysis, Mr. Simmons asserts that sudden and sharp oil production declines could happen at any time. Even under the most optimistic scenario, Saudi Arabia may be able to maintain current rates of production for several years, but will not be able to increase production enough to meet the expected increase in world demand. Eventually, the reckoning day will come and the world economy will be confronted with a major shock that will stunt economic growth, increase inflation, and potentially destabilize the Middle East.

  8. pete best says:

    Re #5 – its well documented that in the 1980s OPEC countries could only pump a percentage of their known reserves so a lot of countries boosted then in order to pump more. Saudi Arabia and other reserves jumped for no reason.

  9. Bob Lang says:

    Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu isn’t helping climate-change mitigation either with his “Sun-Shot” initiative which aims to make solar as cheap as fossil-fuel power by 2020. So what!

    Let’s all sit back and wait for the “holy grail” in 2020.

    Right now the cost of installed wind power is $69 per megawatt-hour versus $67 for coal-fired power. So what!

    Not only are GHG emissions still increasing but the “rate of increase” continues to increase unabated.

    Why the apparent contradiction: Failure to understand the exponential function.

    Average annual economic growth = the exponential function. Renewables have no chance of ever catching up. ‘Nuff said.

  10. Zetetic says:

    @ Prokaryotes:

    I’ll second that motion for Biochar… I can’t believe that it still hasn’t gone towards more large scale production/use yet.

  11. brooks bridges says:

    And I can’t understand why we are still subsidizing corn crops for ethanol!

    How long will that tragic absurdity continue?

    Why haven’t republicans jumped on THAT clean air item to trim the budget?

  12. Gord says:

    I read Twilight in the Desert when it came out too. Good book.

    I not a fan of a “gradualist” unfolding of history. I read history as a series of processes / relationships where the participants suddenly discover that they are playing a different game. They are dressed / equipped for football but in a ‘flash’ the game changes to hockey. So what is to be done? All that fancy equipment, training and play books are nothing but junk, an impediment to success / survival.

    I’m getting that feeling more and more these days (daze?).

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    “Why haven’t republicans jumped on THAT clean air item to trim the budget?”

    To collect the subsidies, to have subsidies go to a black hole, to prevent subsidies for solar & wind.

    Which is actually just pure childish. Instead republican industrials should start invest into clean tech. That’s what Rockefeller 2.0 would do today.

    Stop riding that dead horse.

  14. Anne van der Bom says:

    Bob Lang

    Average annual economic growth = the exponential function. Renewables have no chance of ever catching up. ‘Nuff said.

    http://setis.ec.europa.eu/newsroom-items-folder/historical-development-of-pv/image/image_view_fullscreen

    That looks pretty much like an exponential function to me. Do you understand the exponential function?

  15. Edward says:

    “Why is it that there always seems to be an inverse relationship between the definitiveness of an assertion and its credibility?”

    THANKS Joe.

  16. Jon says:

    “There’s another fragment type problem in the headline itself.
    “UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, world’s largest producer it is”. How about making that: “UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, the world’s largest producer””

    More headlines should be written by Yoda.

  17. Bob Lang says:

    Anne #14

    I imagine that all installed renewable power is increasing exponentially, not just solar PV. Vestas will soon unveil a 6 megawatt offshore turbine. Not that long ago the largest turbine was 1 megawatt.

    The point is that the exponential increase in total energy consumption dwarfs the total increase in renewables. By definition of the exponential function y = exp(x), the rate of increase of y is proportional to y. Therefore, it is mathematically impossible for the renewables to ever catch up. Once something has fallen behind it will always remain behind.

    Once something is proven mathematically it is no longer subject to debate because it will happen with 100% certainty.

    This is reflected in the following measured rates of increase in global GHG emissions (ppm/year):

    1970-79: 1.3

    1990-99: 1.5

    2000-07: 2.3

    which exceeds the IPCC worst-case scenario and is accelerating!

  18. anders says:

    Fresh water will be the crunch point.

    Look to lake chad, the nile, jordan river, eufrates, indus, ganges etc.

    Sea level rise, topsoil loss, aquifer depletion will make a bad situation worse

    As for biochar, if we cannot supply efficient stoves which cost almost nothing I doubt we can implement biochar in these countries, china and more developed countries might and that would help, cross your fingers

    Good luck and good night

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    Bob Lang “Therefore, it is mathematically impossible for the renewables to ever catch up. Once something has fallen behind it will always remain behind.

    Once something is proven mathematically it is no longer subject to debate because it will happen with 100% certainty.”

    Stop kidding yourself, there are many projects which aim for energy independency and several studies who back these. A situation when there is enough energy for everybody, many times over. Further the topic of energy efficiency is not part of your not very thoughtful analysis. Try again.

  20. K. Nockels says:

    How many harvests in how many countries can we afford to lose? Since we live in a global community/economy now, losses affect everyone. Here the prices goes up, in other countries people starve. It means greater instability worldwide, and we have just started down this road what will it be like in 10yrs when crop failures are happening every year on a bigger and bigger scale. And add to this water shortages and peak oil.

  21. robin Rutherford says:

    The atmosphere is warmer, it holds more moisture, so drought is a result of the longer time it now takes to build up enough moisture to develop rain, and when rains come there is a deluge. And each day the earth warms a little more due to the 2.0kg of heat trapping carbon dioxide produced by each and every litre of gasoline used. We are on a pathway to disaster and it is coming far faster than any of us thought possible. The wheat crop is down 40% in Russia, there was $500 million of wheat lost in the recent Australian floods, the Chinese wheat crop at serious risk due to a ‘worst in 200 yr’ drought and global warming is just starting. We also need to factor in the prospect of limited oil supplies and seriously limited water supplies in many places. Scary but no one has suggested we stop driving!!!!!!!

  22. Mehmet Necati says:

    Droughts, surging prices… Then what is next? What will happen to the world? If these droughts etc. are not temporary, then it means that we are in a serious trouble.

  23. MightyDrunken says:

    Interesting story about food prices and the possibility that speculators are partly to blame.

    http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23921754-the-men-who-ate-the-world-why-foodstuffs-have-shot-up-in-price.do

  24. pete best says:

    Re #21, no one will until it becomes too economically expensive as the very wealthy will always be able to fly, drive, expend energy is buying goods and serives and heat their homes.