Extreme Weather Due to Global Warming Leads to Food Price Spikes

As the most severe and extensive drought to strike the U.S. in over half a century, the 2012 drought has already brought serious impacts on U.S. agriculture as well as a considerable increase in retail prices of numerous crops—corn in particular. According to the USDA, this season’s corn yield will fall 15.5% to its lowest level since 1995, causing its price to rise by as much as 39% ($8.90 a bushel).

As significant as this is, it may only be the beginning of future food price shocks. Titled “Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices”, a newly released briefing based on recent research commissioned by Oxfam makes conservative predictions that “the average price of staple foods such as maize could more than double in the next 20 years compared with 2010 trend prices – with up to half of the increase due to changes in average temperatures and rainfall patterns.”

How did all this happen? NOT all of a sudden. The report lists some weather extremes that occurred in the past year alone: for example, in July 2012 the U.S. survived the country’s hottest month on record and China experienced the heaviest recorded rainfall that hit Beijing in a 14-hour period. While previous research only considers the gradual effects of climate change, such as warming temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, Oxfam’s new research models “extreme weather event scenarios in 2030 for sub-Saharan Africa and for each of the main global export regions for rice, maize, and wheat.” By doing so, it examines the impact of extreme weather and thus directs attention to the combination of long-term climate impacts and extreme weather shocks.

“Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns hold back crop production and cause steady price rises,” Oxfam’s Climate Change Policy Adviser Tim Gore said. “But extreme weather events – like the current US drought – can wipe out entire harvests and trigger dramatic food price spikes.”

While food prices spikes in the developed world cause economic difficulties especially for low income residents, they are “a matter of life and death to many people in developing countries, who spend as much as 75 per cent of their income on food,” the report states. Because North America could remain the largest wheat and maize exporter by 2030, many developing countries in Central Asia, Central America, North Africa, and the Middle East would therefore be hit hard as they may have even higher dependence on food imports by then. “We will all feel the impact as prices spike but the poorest people will be hit hardest,” Gore commented.

The fact that this year’s price increase represents the third spike in the last four years further underscores the great urgency of this situation.  As the Oxfam report says, the global food system should be fully “stress-tested” for how climate change will impact it.

Here in California, a significant food producer globally, our farms and ranches are at risk of increased water scarcity, unpredictable weather, deeper and more frequent droughts, spring floods, and more. Plans must be made and resources devoted to assuring the preparedness of the state’s farms to face climate change.

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