There is a food crisis coming
Are we ready? Global warming means bad harvests of the kind which helped spark the Arab Spring are increasingly likely – and could cause world-wide unrest.
Poor harvests, far away, were famously one of the causes of the Arab spring. In 2007-8 grain prices spiked after poor weather cut worldwide production, at a time when food stocks had been run down – and export restrictions, by countries wishing to secure their own supplies, made things even worse. And in 2011 prices doubled partly because harvests were hit again by bad weather in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The first protests in Tunisia were linked to bread riots, while Egypt - much the world's largest wheat importer, and with more than 40 per cent of its people below the poverty line – was particularly vulnerable. Bread became a symbol of the protests in Cairo too, with one angry demonstrator even making an improvised helmet out of loaves. And in 2012 the prices of maize and soybeans shot up as a result of the worst drought to hit the US midwest in half a century.
But these troubles came as single spies, relatively limited harvest failures in different years. What if they came in batallions? A startling new Government report, published this morning, looks at what it calls “multiple bread basket failures” – and concludes that they are increasingly likely.
The report – by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Governments Science and Innovation Network, and the UK Global Food Security programme – says that a large proportion of all four major commodity crops – maize, soybean, wheat and rice – is concentrated in just a few parts if the world, like the US midwest, Southeast Brazil, the Ganges plain and southeast China. It adds: “Simultaneous extreme weather events in two or more of these regions would represent a major production shock”, causing a loss of perhaps about a tenth of the world harvest.
Again governments would be likely to impose export controls, making a bad situation worse. Low food stocks, panic hoarding, and the continued use of grain for biofuels would make things worse. Thus, says the report, a failure in the Indian monsoon, drought in the US and a temporary thaw followed by a renewed freeze in the Black Sea area, devastating wheat crops, could combine to treble grain prices as early as next year In ten years time, it could be even worse.
The results would be just uncomfortable in the United States and Europe – where food makes up a relatively small amount of household budgets and much of it is processed, with the raw materials forming only a minor amount of its cost. But in hungry Sub-Saharan Africa it could be catastrophic. And in the Middle East and North Africa, heavily dependent on food imports, there could well be civil unrest.
What is more, the report says, “the risk of a serious weather-related shock to global food production appears to be increasing rapidly, due to climate change”, even taking into account that increased carbon dioxide in the air helps crops grow better. This is because it also brings extreme, and deeply damaging, events like storms and droughts which, it says, “are increasing in severity and frequency at a considerable rate.” Thus very bad harvests, such as traditionally expected once every hundred years, may happen once every 30 in the next decades and become common by the end of the century as global warming accelerates.