A severe drop in the world’s grain supply due to this summer’s extreme weather events has driven up food prices and could lead to a major hunger crisis in 2013, UN officials say.
Widespread drought and record-breaking heat waves across the U.S. caused mass soybean and corn crop failures this summer, leading to the worst harvest in more than 50 years. Similar weather is expected to cut grain harvests in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan — which together supply a quarter of world’s wheat exports — by 27 percent. These production shortages have led to the U.S. consuming more grain than it produces, running grain stocks down to historically low levels.
And the U.S. isn’t alone: worldwide food consumption has surpassed production for the sixth time in 11 years, and countries have reduced reserves from an average 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to less than 74 days in recent years. This drop in food reserves leaves “no room for unexpected events next year,” Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told the Guardian.
The low crop yields have caused a spike in food prices around the world, with the UN FAO reporting a Food Price Index rise of 1.4 percent in September, following an increase of 6 percent in July. This price increase hurts the world’s poorest countries, where as much as 60 to 80 percent of household budgets are spent on food. Families in these countries eat less often, buy cheaper, less nutritious and less varied food, and must make cuts in other areas in order to feed themselves. Rising food prices are expected to increase the grain import bill for poor countries to $36.5 billion in 2012–2013 — a 3.7 percent jump from last year’s bill.
Increased food prices could also lead to increased instability around the world. One study concluded that riots become more likely when Food Price Index levels surpass 210 points. Currently at 216 points, Food Price Index levels are 22 points away from those that some say helped spark the riots leading to the Arab Spring. They’ve certainly contributed to instability in the past: food price spikes in 2007 and 2008 sparked food riots in countries across the world, which led to the death of five people and the collapse of the government in Haiti.
In the U.S., consumers don’t often take to the streets to protest the rise in food prices, in part because food makes up so little of our household budgets — in 2011, U.S. consumers spent on average about 7 percent of their income on food, compared to 43 percent in Indonesia. Still, food prices aren’t going unnoticed in America. The price of corn increased 60 percent during the summer, causing some restaurants to cut corn from their menus and serve grain-intensive beef less often. The price of chicken, turkey and eggs is up from last year, and menu prices at Olive Garden, McDonalds, Buffalo Wild Wings have increased in response to higher food prices. And farmers are adjusting too: chicken suppliers are growing larger birds so they have fewer mouths to feed, and this fall, farmers are feeding their cows candy as a cheaper alternative to corn.
During the October 16 Committee on World Food Security 39th session in Rome, the UN focused talks on what can be done to combat the rising price of food. Officials noted that the number of people suffering from hunger has stopped going down over the past several years, and is actually increasing in Africa and the Middle East. During the committee session, which runs from October 15–20, the UN is stressing the importance of agricultural cooperatives as key players in ending poverty and hunger.
Katie Valentine is a graduate from the University of Georgia. She currently interns on the international policy team at the Center for American Progress.