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Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices.

Earlier this month I discussed how, “Extreme weather events help drive food prices to record highs.” Since then I had lunch with one of the world’s foremost authorities on food insecurity, Lester Brown, who has a terrific new book out, World on the Edge, that I will blog on later.

I have been concerned about food security for a while (see links below). But Brown’s work has persuaded me that genuinely destabilizing food insecurity may occur as soon as this decade — assuming 1 billion undernourished people isn’t already a crisis. So I’ve decided to add a new category, “food insecurity,” to ClimateProgress and will be doing a series of posts in the coming weeks and months.

The Washington Post had a pretty good piece on the subject Saturday, which I’ll excerpt below. Significantly, they note, “Russia has banned grain exports until the end of the 2011 harvest.”

As Brown explained to me, when the real food instability comes — if, for instance, the U.S. or Chinese breadbasket gets hit with the type of 1000-year 100-year heat wave Russia just did — then the big grain producers will ban exports, to make sure their people are fed. In this scenario, if you don’t have your own food supplies or an important export item to barter — particularly oil — your country is going to have big, big problems feeding its people.

Here’s more from the piece, a glimpse of the shape of things to come:

In Bangladesh, rice prices jumped 8 percent in December. In India, the price of onions soared 80 percent in just one week.

“Now everyone is having fears of going back to the levels of 2007–08,” said Sudakshina Unnikrishnan, a Barclays Capital commodities analyst.

Rising food prices may have been an ingredient in the instability in Tunisia that drove that country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, from office Thursday. The demonstrations and riots against Ben Ali were sparked in December by a license dispute between police and a fruit-and-vegetable vendor, who set himself on fire in protest. Earlier this week, one of the measures Ben Ali used in a futile bid to cling to power was to cut prices for sugar, cooking oil and other commodities.

But other countries, big and small, are struggling to deal with rising inflation rates. China this month boosted interest rates in an effort to cool its economy and calm inflation, which has been particularly strong for food.

In Armenia, hit by adverse weather, “the contraction of agricultural output and a rise in imported wheat prices have translated into higher food prices,” the International Monetary Fund said last month. “Comprising nearly half of the weight of the consumer price index, higher food prices have pushed annual inflation over 9 percent in recent months.”

Some of the factors feeding the rise in food prices — floods in Australia, last summer’s drought in Russia, and bad weather in South America — are temporary, says Unnikrishnan. But, she adds, “if you’re looking at next year or a few years out, the trading range has shifted higher on emerging market demand, lower inventories and biofuel policies that are adding a new layer of demand onto the market.”

Sadly, the extreme weather we are seeing is not a “temporary” phenomenon. The country’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, recently explained:

Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.

It’s likely half the years this decade will be hotter and more extreme than 2010 — and most of the years in the next decade.

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Sure, it’s unlucky that some of the extreme weather hit major food-producing regions, but as weather gets more and more extreme, we’re just playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later, as Brown says, the extreme weather is going to hit a key U.S. or Chinese food-producing region.

Equally worrisome is that many countries, including our own, continue to pursue inane biofuel policies based on food crops that eat up increasingly scarce arable land and potable water. That cannot be sustained.

Finally, and it’s a bit surprising the article doesn’t mention this, oil is at $90 a barrel again even though the global economy isn’t particularly strong. We are peaking in conventional oil production (see “Peak oil production coming sooner than expected” and World’s top energy economist warns: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us”). Since the agricultural sector is quite dependent on oil, this important input to food production and delivery is poised to help push food prices higher whenever the economy picks up steam — unless of course, high food and commodity prices stall a recovery.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, warns that long-term food trends are worrisome, especially for soybeans. He notes that in 1995 China produced the same amount of soybeans it consumed, but since then production has stayed the same and consumption has jumped fivefold.

World demand for soy, used largely as an ingredient in livestock feed, is rising at a rate of more than 6 percent a year, Brown says, but crop yields are fairly constant. As a result, he said, the amount of land devoted to growing soy has risen at an unsustainable rate. More land in the United States is devoted to growing soy than to wheat, he said. In Brazil, more land is used for soybeans than for all grains combined.

Above all, Brown said, water shortages and climate change will constrain output. Every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent, he said.

That will take some time, however. For the moment, analysts are looking more closely at seasonal factors.

Kudos to the Post for quoting Brown. But I think they missed his point.

Climate change is already contributing to the extreme weather (and local water shortages) that are helping to drive up food prices. Again, as ClimateWire and SciAm explained,”world food prices hit a record high in December thanks to crop failures from a series of extreme weather events around the world”:

FAO attributes the upswing in prices to factors including the crop failures caused by a string of extreme weather events and high crop demands from an ever-increased global population. Many experts have linked the series of floods and fires with climate change.

“We can never tell if any particular weather event is impacted by climate change, but I can say there is every expectation we will see more of these weather events in the future and that these events certainly have an impact,” said Jerry Nelson, a senior research fellow coordinating climate change work at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Wheat, for example, bludgeoned by Russia’s wildfires, the heat waves in Australia and flooding in Pakistan, saw massive price surges last fall.

“The record rise in food prices is a grave reminder that until we act on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change, we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife’s edge of disaster,” said Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America, in a statement.

We have dawdled for so long that we are stuck with a fair amount of climate change for the next couple of decades that will likely drive extreme food insecurity. But if we don’t act soon, the situation is likely to become catastrophic within a few decades (see “Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path”). And we all know who suffers first:

International agencies are worried about the effect of higher food prices on the world’s poorest people.

“We are really concerned about the impact of rising food prices on the most vulnerable. They are the ones who tend to be most hit,” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank managing director and former Nigerian finance minister. “You saw what happened in 2008 and 2009 . . . 64 million-plus people were thrown into poverty.”

Here is one of Brown’s charts:

Those who think that the serious impacts of climate change on the world economy and U.S. national security are decades away are simply not paying attention.

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