China’s droughts nears worst in 200 years, adding pressure to world food prices

The recent unrest in the Middle East, which has been attributed, in part, to high food prices, gives us a warning of the type of global unrest that might result in future years if the climate continues to warm as expected. A hotter climate means more severe droughts will occur. We can expect an increasing number of unprecedented heat waves and droughts like the 2010 Russian drought in coming decades. This will significantly increase the odds of a world food emergency far worse than the 2007 – 2008 global food crisis. When we also consider the world’s expanding population and the possibility that peak oil will make fertilizers and agriculture much more expensive, we have the potential for a perfect storm of events aligning in the near future, with droughts made significantly worse by climate change contributing to events that will cause disruption of the global economy, intense political turmoil, and war.

That’s meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters from his WunderBlog.  For background on these issues, see CP’s food insecurity series.

I reported two weeks ago that if China’s drought continued through the month it would be the worst in 200 years (see “UN food agency warns severe drought threatens wheat crop in China, world’s largest producer“).  Below, Masters discusses what’s happening now and what’s forecast to happen in the coming weeks in this repost.

The soil lies cracked and broken in China’s Shangdong Province, thirsting for rains that will not come. China’s key wheat producing region, lying just south of Beijing, has received just 12 millimeters (1/2 inch) of rain since September, according to the Chinese news service Xinhua. If no rains come during the remainder of February, it could become the worst drought in 200 years. The latest precipitation forecast from the GFS ensemble model predicts the possibility of rains of around 1/2 inch for Shandong Province early next week, but these rains would help only a little. A longer-range 2-week forecast from the operational GFS model shows little or no rain for the region from late next week well into March. Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) projects that spring in Eastern China has an enhanced probability of being dry, with only a 20% – 25% chance that the region will see above average precipitation, and a 40% – 45% chance of below average precipitation. So the great drought will likely continue, and China’s ability to feed itself may be greatly challenged this year.

Figure 1. A dried cornfield in a mountainous area of Jinan, capital of east China’s Shandong Province, Jan. 18, 2011. Image credit: Xinhua/Zhu Zheng.

Figure 2. Drought conditions in China’s Shandong Province this February have reached the “Severe” category. Image credit: Beijing Climate Center.

Impact on global food supplies and food prices
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the drought in north China seems to be putting pressure on wheat prices, which have been rising rapidly in the past few months. This has helped push global food prices to their highest levels since the FAO Food Price Index was created in 1990 (Figure 3.) China is the world’s largest producer of wheat, and if they are forced to import large amounts of food due to continued drought, it could severely impact world food prices. However, the FAO’s regional representative for Asia and the Pacific said in an interview with Reuters last month that the situation is not as severe as in 2008, when global food riots erupted. “In general, the supply/demand situation of food grains has become very tight at the moment but enough stocks means there is no cause for alarm,” Konuma said. “We still maintain sufficient stocks, which is about 25 percent of annual production. As long as there are sufficient stocks, that means the world has enough food still to feed the people.” However, he said that if food stocks continued to decline over the next few years, there would be cause for concern.

The record food global food prices have been partially driven by two other huge weather disasters, the Russian summer heat wave and drought of 2010, and the Australian floods of December – January 2011. Both Russia and Australia are major exporters of grain. Russia issued a ban last summer on grain exports because of their drought, which slashed the wheat harvest by 40% and damaged soils to such an extent that 10% of Russian wheat fields could not be planted this year. The Russian heat wave of 2010 is now estimated by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters to be the deadliest in human history, with 55,736 deaths. The Australian floods caused at least $1.7 billion in agricultural damage, reducing their wheat crop significantly. Fortunately, bumper crops were harvested in non-flooded areas of Australia, and the winter crop harvest in country was up 19% over the previous year’s crop, and was the biggest since 2003 – 2004. Australia has been struggling with severe drought in recent years that caused more agricultural damage than the floods did.

Figure 3. The global price of food between 1990 – January 2011, as measured by the U.N.’s FAO Food Price Index. The FAO Food Price Index is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities. It consists of the average of price indices for Cereals, Oils and Fats, Sugar, Dairy, and Meat, weighted by the average export shares of each group. Food prices between 2002 – 2004 are given a benchmark value of “100”. Global food prices in January 2011 were the highest since the FAO Index was established in 1990. Image credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Drought outlook for Northern Hemisphere summer of 2011
The spike in global food prices this winter raises the concern that a severe drought in a major grain producing region in North America, Europe, or Asia this summer could severely impact grain supplies and food prices. Fortunately, with La Ni±a conditions over the Eastern Pacific weakening, and possibly abating by summer, the chances for such a drought are lower than they would have been if La Ni±a were to stay strong into the summer. The latest precipitation forecast from Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (Figure 4) shows few areas of drought concern for the coming Northern Hemisphere summer. However, our skill at predicting drought months in advance is limited. For example, IRI’s February 2010 forecast of precipitation for the summer of 2010 did not highlight Russia as an area of possible concern for drought, and Russia ended up having one of its worst droughts in history. IRI did highlight the Amazon as a region likely to have below-average summer rains, though, and the Amazon ended up having a 100-year drought last summer.

Figure 4. Global precipitation forecast for June, July and August of 2011, made in February 2011. Only a few scattered regions of the globe are predicted to have above-average chances of drought (yellow colors.) These areas include the Northwest U.S., Southern Brazil, and Northwest China. Image credit: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

— Jeff Masters

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18 Responses to China’s droughts nears worst in 200 years, adding pressure to world food prices

  1. pete best says:

    So how do we rule in ACC and out natural cycles on these events in the publics and medias eye. Mainstream media has all but forgotten ACC for teh time being.

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The FAO Food Price Index is yet another chart that looks suspiciously like a ‘hockey-stick’. I guess that just means the FAO is another arm of the great ‘alarmist’ conspiracy. Meanwhile in Austraya, land of mental torpor, the Chief Scientist has just resigned, pissed off that the politicians (oilyticians?) took no note of her scientific advice, indeed they never bothered consulting her. Once under KRudd, almost certainly for a photo opportunity, and never, not once, nada under Dullard. And Dullard’s announcement of a ‘carbon price’ yesterday, all set about with equivocation piled on equivocation, was met by Abbott the Opposition Leader, with a literally ‘barking’ performance in Parliament where he pledged, after his verbal incontinence had quietened down a bit, to lead a ‘peoples” ‘crusade’ against any tax, price, carbon trading scheme-anything. A Crusade to ensure our children’s lives become Hell. And the man is a ‘proud Christian’.
    As to food crises, GM Watch has some good stories on the unfolding horror that is glyphosphate (Roundup) poisoning. They really get the hairs on the back of your neck prickling. The thought keeps getting stronger that mere greed and indifference to others cannot totally explain the sheer omnicidal horror of what is being inflicted on humanity and life on this planet by the powers that be.

  3. Leif says:

    It is my understanding that ~40 to 60% of “digestion” takes place in your mouth by properly chewing your food. Gulping your food just means that you defecate most of the food value that you paid big bucks for in the first place. Chew more, eat less. You save and there is more for others.

  4. David Stern says:

    The winter is the dry season in China and it is a lot drier than winter in the US midwest. So there may be even less precipitation than normal but I wouldn’t think it was a cause for concern yet. Areas around Beijing aren’t growing crops in the winter.

  5. Lollipop says:

    Mrs. Mumblebrain,
    My husband speculates that perhaps our leaders are the vanguard of an invasion force for Venuians. Their mission: have us terreform the planet for them and extinguish ourselves. He’s kidding, but there are days . . . there are days I listen to politicians and just wonder.

  6. Sailesh Rao says:

    Mulga #2: Re: “The thought keeps getting stronger that mere greed and indifference to others cannot totally explain the sheer omnicidal horror of what is being inflicted on humanity and life on this planet by the powers that be.”

    I think that the powers that be are operating out of the fear that the music will stop and then, they will have to survive with what they have already snatched. That fear leads to an all out frenzy to grab what they can, when they can and at whatever long term cost. Perhaps, they wish to be prepared for when a loaf of bread begins to cost a million dollars…

    The trouble with the universe is that it gives us precisely what we wish for. We built our systems on competition which is an efficient way to allocate scarce resources and the universe is giving us the scarcity that we wished for. Instead, if we had built our systems on compassion to all creation, which assumes an abundance of resources, it is abundance that we would have received. But then, we have become very adept at hearing one thing on our “sacred” day of the week, be it Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and then doing the exact opposite on the remaining six days of the week.

    Thanks for the soap box…

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sailesh Rao#6, I could not more fully concur. Compassion for life is utterly absent from the rulers. Of course the reason why lies both in their individual psyches, ie their ‘nature’, and in the group dynamics of the parasitic class in which they grow or to which they are recruited, ie their nurture. Both act to exacerbate the horror of the other. I was never asked whether I wished to live in a world based on ruthless and unscrupulous competition, where the ‘winners’ collected all the spoils (how apt that usage appears now)and the ‘losers’ were left to rot. But that’s what we have, which is why we are on the brink of the abyss, or just a little way down in the descent into Hell. This crisis will make or end humanity. Muddling through by ‘reforming’ capitalism will only put off the evil hour until greed, egomania, lack of human empathy and compassion fashion an even greater disaster, although it is, of course, quite impossible to think of a crisis deeper than that we now face.

  8. Edith Wiethorn says:

    The potential for despoiling & “apres moi les deluge” has always been evident in human nature. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Marie Antoinette said – if the poor do not have bread, let them eat cake! Still – a great many fine human beings & accomplishments followed in time. Now we see the potential end game of time. Negative predictions alone can only be self fulfilling. Act – as if. “We’re working on it.”

  9. Sailesh Rao says:

    Mulga #7: It isn’t just the rulers or Wall Street, but Main Street, including the most well intentioned among us as well. I remember visiting with the foremost defender of the Tiger in India and becoming horrified as I watched him gobbling down mutton curry, oblivious to the lack of compassion it indicated, not to mention the direct connection between his consumption and the decline of the tiger’s habitat. Therefore, the problem is deeply ingrained and systemic. As the competitive culture of the West destroyed cooperative ones and went global, it carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Now, do we have the capacity to recognize it, step back from the brink and reform our dominant culture? I’m betting that our children have that capacity and I’m working furiously on that assumption, but only time will tell…

  10. Daimon says:

    Mulga and Sailesh,
    Perhaps there is a way to reform a self-eliminating culture. The key is widespread collective intelligence exerted on behalf of the compassion you mention, both for people and for living systems.

  11. Richard Brenne says:

    Since the heavy hitters or at least heavy pacifists are out, I’ll add that I think history’s greatest spiritual thinkers saw another, deeper reality right where the rest of us agree to consensus reality, and that reality was spiritual, had no hierarchy and no competition, only cooperation with everyone of every species as integral and necessary as every integer is to mathematics.

    In the proportion that we see the reality they saw, we will see that manifest itself in our lives.

    These spiritual thinkers demonstrated and proved what they were talking about by healing. Just like I’m going to believe the scientist who does the work, proves the theorem, conducts the experiment and replicates it, and gathers the most compelling evidence, I’m going to believe the spiritual thinker in proportion to how much they demonstrate the truth of their teachings by how much they helped and healed the poorest, most diseased and crippled.

    We can (and most do) reject that there is any reality other than the materialism that feeds our egos, but that’s like telling someone from another Universe that their Universe does not exist because you haven’t yet experienced it.

    It is time for each of us to listen to and become our authentic selves, and let our ego selves dissolve into the nothingness of monkey chatter that they are (no offense to monkeys, who I love). I feel climate change and all the lessons of Anthro-Earth are just forcing us to realize these lessons that have appeared optional but are truly mandatory, as we’ll each find out in our own way and time.

  12. J Bowers says:

    Inspector General’s Review of Stolen Emails Confirms No Evidence of Wrong-Doing by NOAA Climate Scientists

    Report is the latest independent analysis to clear climate scientists of allegations of mishandling of climate information

  13. Joan Savage says:

    The photos out of China show attempts at irrigation of the winter wheat crop with hand-held hoses, drawing on well-water supply. Clearly that doesn’t cover all the bases.

    China has the international credits to buy wheat from the US, if necessary.

    Although the IRI Seasonal Climate Forecasts show continued drought expected in eastern China in the next three months, normal precipitation is expected to occur in the US wheat belt.

    So it looks like the wheat commodity market may sell a good bit to a hungry China in the near future.
    Hope all goes well.

  14. MapsRus says:

    China may want to review this website:

    The World Bank Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include a target to Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger by 2015. Water productivity is an essential key to help meet the World Bank’s target. Did you know water use in agriculture consumes more than 75 percent of water in the developing world? Demand for more food goes hand in hand with population increases. Water productivity will have to be raised to meet the demand for for more food. One way to help the World Bank meet its MDG is to help raise awareness to how capturing and saving rainfall can help irrigate crops.

    The idea behind the save-the-rain water productivity calculator is to basically use open data sources to actually make a difference in the world. This creative app strives to deliver a tool Developing Worlds and areas suffering from water shortages can utilize to help make decisions with regards to rain water harvesting. This original app also provides an avenue to raise awareness of how high a value rain water can have in the production of crops/hunger resolution.

  15. Villabolo says:

    @5 Lollipop:

    Mulga Mumblebrain is a she? :-)

  16. espiritwater says:

    So beautifully said, Richard (#11). I concur wholeheartedly.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Villabolo, Mulga is a he, a ‘night-soil’ or ‘black can’ collector, who plies his trade in the scenic hamlet of Foolgarah. He is an ex-boxer, hence the occasional tremour and the deviated septum. He would be proud and privileged to be a sheila, but lacks the inclination or the cash for the operation.

  18. Joan Savage says:

    Those of us who have been enjoying the words of Mulga Mumblebrain, the astute Aussie commentator, should probably find ourselves a copy of Frank Hardy’s 1971 book ‘The Outcasts of Foolgarah’ to learn more about the choice of pseudonym.