“Extreme weather like the droughts in Russia, China and Brazil and the flooding in Pakistan and Australia [in 2010] have contributed to a level of food price volatility we haven’t seen since the oil crisis of 40 years ago. Unfortunately, this could be just a taste of things to come because in the next few decades the build-up of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere could greatly increase the risk of droughts, flooding, pest infestation and water scarcity for agriculture systems already under tremendous stress.” — John Beddington, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (March, 2011)
Already, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 1 billion people are starving and another 2.5 billion are malnourished.
“Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced,” as I argued in the journal Nature. Oxfam has been one of the leaders in making this case (see Oxfam Predicts Climate Change will Help Double Food Prices by 2030: “We Are Turning Abundance into Scarcity”).
On the eve of the international climate talks in Durban, Oxfam has released a new report that opens with Beddington’s quote and warns:
Climate change is likely to have a pernicious effect on food production in two main ways. Firstly, slow onset changes in mean temperatures and precipitation patterns are expected to put downward pressure on average yields. Added to this will be crop losses resulting from more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
Research to date has focused almost exclusively on the first impact, modeling the extent of long-run average price rises in the absence of volatility….
But this paints only a partial picture. More frequent and extreme weather events will compound things further, creating shortages, destabilizing markets and precipitating price spikes, which will be felt on top of the structural price rises predicted by the models. One need not rely on imagination to understand how this could play out for the world’s poorest people. Looking at the toll extreme weather events are taking on global food security since 2010 alone paints an alarming picture.
The whole report is worth reading, but here is their summary along with recommendations for Durban:
Durban climate talks must deliver action to prevent spiraling hunger
In the last year extreme weather events shocked global markets contributing to soaring wheat prices and imperiling food security in many parts of the world, according to research compiled by Oxfam at the start of the Durban climate talks.
This year could be a grim foretaste of what is to come as new warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency and severity without action to tackle climate change.
“From the Horn of Africa and South East Asia to Russia and Afghanistan, a year of floods, droughts, and extreme heat has helped push tens of millions of people into hunger and poverty,” said Kelly Dent, Oxfam. “This will only get worse as climate change gathers pace and agriculture feels the heat. Governments must act now in Durban to protect our food supply and save millions from slipping into hunger and poverty.”
Oxfam’s briefing Extreme weather endangers food security 2010-11: A grim foretaste of future suffering and hunger? shows how several extreme weather events have contributed to food insecurity at global, regional and local levels since 2010. Oxfam warns that increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events will compound the projected impacts of climate change on crop yields and food prices, creating food shortages, destabilizing markets and precipitating price spikes.
- In an area of chronic vulnerability and political conflict, severe drought in the Horn and East Africa has pushed over 13 million people into crisis. In July, sorghum prices in Somalia were up to 393% higher and maize prices in Ethiopia and Kenya up to 191% and 161% higher respectively versus the five-year average prices.
- Drought and fires following a massive heat wave in Russia and Ukraine destroyed much of the 2010 harvest and triggered a 60% to 80% increase in global wheat prices in just three months. By April 2011, wheat prices were 85% higher on international markets than the year before.
- Heavy monsoon rainfall and multiple typhoons in Southeast Asia have killed more than 1,100 people and helped send the price of rice up about 25% and 30% in Thailand and Vietnam respectively versus the previous year.
- In Afghanistan serious drought helped send prices of wheat and wheat flour in July 2011 up to 79% higher in affected areas over their levels a year before.
While it is difficult to attribute a specific weather-related disaster to climate change, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as those seen this year is set to increase due to climate change. For the poorest and most vulnerable who spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, this could have catastrophic consequences as families are forced into impossible trade-offs in a desperate bid to feed themselves.
“When a weather event drives local or regional price spikes poor people often face a double shock,” said Dent. “They have to cope with higher food prices at a time when extreme weather may have also killed their livestock, destroyed their home or farm, or stripped them of their livelihood. This toxic mix of higher prices and lower purchasing power has driven many people into crisis this year. If we don’t act in Durban, this pattern could become even worse.”