Massive Natural Disasters Fuel Global Grain Price Spike
This month, the Wall Street Journal reports that prices of basic foods like milk, beef and cereal grain have risen sharply enough in the U.S. in recent weeks that major food producers like Kraft and General Mills have decided they must begin to pass the increased cost of supplies on to their customers in the form of higher retail food prices.
After months of notably low inflation, what could be driving this sudden rise in food prices? Contrary to former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s recent claims, it’s not current American economic policy that’s to blame for the rising cost of certain foods. It’s the weather.
This summer’s unprecedented heat wave in Russia, which produced the hottest temperatures in Moscow’s recorded history, led to widespread droughts and raging wildfires that together destroyed nearly half of the nation’s staple wheat crop. In response, the Russia, traditionally one of the world’s most prolific wheat exporters, has banned wheat exports for the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, epic, record-shattering monsoon rains this year led to massive flooding that inundated more than a fifth of the country, and ruined grain crops and food stores nationwide, sharply increasing Pakistan’s demand for imported grain.
In the face of these twin natural disasters, wheat prices worldwide rose to a two-year high in August. Corn, barley and other staple grains also spiked in price. As the price of grain rose, the price of livestock feed also rose, and so globally the prices of meat, eggs and dairy have also recently been on the rise.
Echoes of the 2008 Food Price Crisis
In the spring of 2008, spiking food prices worldwide led to famine in Ethiopia and Afghanistan and riots in Egypt, Haiti, and Cameroon. Burgeoning global demand for high cost, energy-intensive foods like meat and dairy, surging fuel prices, and a severe, crop destroying drought in Australia were all implicated as factors in the 2008 global food price crisis. But the severe global economic recession brought food price inflation down significantly in 2009.
Now, as food prices begin to rise once more, even while incomes and employment levels worldwide remain depressed, some economic experts and world leaders are concerned that a second food price crisis, echoing the events of 2008, may be imminent. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization held a meeting in September to discuss strategies for stabilizing food prices and food security will also be a hot topic of discussion at this week’s G20 Summit in Seoul.
Climate Change Blamed for Unstable Weather, Crop Failure
But are these meetings between global leaders on food price stabilization strategies failing to address the underlying problem driving food price instability?
According to leading climate scientists, the Australian droughts that preceeded 2008′s grain shortage, the disasterous 2010 Russian heat wave and Pakistan’s recent record-breaking floods can all be linked to increasing global temperatures caused by global climate change.
A 2008 report by the Russian government’s environmental agency concluded that Russia, as a region particularly vulnerable to climate change, is warming twice as fast as the global average. Average temperatures in Russia increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century.
Alexander Bedritsky, President of the World Meteological Organization and a special adviser to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on climate change, asserts unequivocally that the recent weather-related disasters in Russia “are signs of global warming” caused by human activity.
And Ghassem Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Programme, said of the floods in Pakistan, “There’s no doubt that clearly the climate change is contributing, a major contributing factor.”
If scientists are correct in pointing to global climate change as the culprit behind recent crop-destroying weather disasters worldwide, then world leaders cannot adequately address the ongoing problem of unstable food prices without first addressing the climate crisis.
Photo by David Monniaux, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.