Feeling impacts from a broad range of stresses including widespread heat and drought from the US West, to South America, to Australia and Southeast Asia, the ongoing Russian invasion and destabilization of breadbasket Ukraine, and the growing threat of a strong El Nino emerging in the Pacific, world food prices made another significant jump during March of 2014.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food index prices surged from a value of 208 in February to 212.8 in March. The 4.8 point increase from February to March followed on the heels of a 5.5 point increase between January and February.
Values above 210 are considered to result in enough stress to ignite conflict as an increasing number of regions begin to see scarcity from lack of ability to purchase or produce food. For the time being, these prices remain below the 2011 high water mark of 229 which was linked to a broad eruption of conflict and food riots from Libya to Egypt to Syria and throughout a smattering of other impoverished or vulnerable regions in Asia and around the globe.
But with the world climate situation worsening, with chances for a strong El Nino emerging later this year increasing, and with global conflict over dwindling and endangered stores of food-related wealth and resources intensifying, there remains a substantial risk that global food prices will continue to see strong upward pressure throughout 2014, pushing and maintaining levels high enough to continue to ignite instability, unrest and, in some cases, open warfare.
(The first episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” provides a close look at two regions suffering directly from crop losses, economic impacts and hunger due to extreme droughts related to climate change — Syria and the US Southwest. It provides a view, in close-up of what happens due to years-long droughts and related food and resource shortages. In the US, loss of grazing land resulted in the closing of meat packing plants supporting local workers and in severe stress to communities even as religion and political beliefs impeded an effective response to the rising crisis. In Syria, a ten year drought spurred armed revolution against a government that turned a blind eye to the needs of its suffering citizens.)
Global Hot Spots
Western US: March saw a brief weakening of the, now 13 month long, blocking high pressure system off the US west coast. This slight interlude unleashed an extraordinary surge of Pacific Ocean moisture that set off record floods and one-day rainfall events throughout Northern California, Washington and Oregon. Pulses of moisture did briefly touch the US Southwest, but the Jet Stream configuration had shifted somewhat northward, resulting in less water relief for the most drought stressed zones.
(The April 8 US Drought Monitor shows drought continuing to intensify over the US despite some moisture reaching affected areas.)
As a result, the epic California drought is probably still the worst seen in 500 years and is now likely to intensify and/or persist on into late this fall. By April 1, snow cover had fallen to 25% of a typical average for the Sierra Nevada. Combined drought and water shortages have led to an unprecedented complete cut off of federal water supplies to many local farmers. In addition, Silicon Valley, has been forced to ration its drinking water supply.
Meanwhile, sections of Texas have experienced their driest 42 month period since record-keeping began in 1911. Regions near Lubbock received only 33 inches of rainfall in the three and a half year period since October of 2010. A normal rainfall for this zone would be around 64 inches for the same time-frame. This makes the current 4+ year Texas drought worse than any previous dry time during the 20th Century, including the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.
With the emergence of spring, a typical post-winter dry period will likely be enhanced by a continued formation of a powerful dome high pressure system blocking moisture flow to California and the US Southwest. In addition, amplified heat in the up-slope of a high amplitude Jet Stream wave will likely drive drought conditions to rapidly worsen as spring runs into summer. Sadly, the primary hope for moisture comes from the emergence of El Nino, which is becoming more and more likely for later this year. However, if the El Nino comes on as strong as expected, rainfall events are likely to be extraordinarily intense, ripping away top soil from the likely fire-damaged zones and making it difficult for water planners to capture and store water due to its velocity. In the worst case, Ark Storm-like conditions could emerge due to a massive heat and moisture dump that could result in very intense rivers of moisture forming over western regions.
Brazil: Ever since 2005, Brazil has been suffering from a series of persistent drought episodes. By this year, the nine year long drought series reached an ominous peak. Like California, this drought series is now likely the worst seen in decades and possibly as far back as 500 years. The result was widespread fires and blackouts throughout Brazil together with extreme impacts to farm production. Particularly hard hit were coffee and sugar production, sending prices for both markets rocketing to record or near-record levels.
(South American rainfall anomalies from Jan 23 to February 24, 2014. Image source: CPC Unified.)
Indonesia and Southeast Asia: From Thailand to Malaysia to Indonesia, drought resulted in significant reductions in palm oil production, a main crop for the region. Throughout March and into April large fires were reported over a wide drought-stricken zone even as smoke choked both cities and countryside. Some of the fires were suspected to have been illegally set by large palm oil conglomerates seeking to clear new land for an ever-expanding set of palm oil plantations. But the plantations may now be in danger of a drought fed by both their destructive practices of land-clearing and by their overall contribution to an extraordinary and excessive global greenhouse gas overburden.
(MODIS shot of widespread fires near the Malacca Strait during March of 2014. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
Drought related heat and fires not only threatened crops but also resulted in multiple school closings, numerous dangerous air warnings, thousands of calls reporting peat fires and, in Indonesia alone, more than 20,000 people hospitalized for respiratory problems.
The Ukraine and Russia: An ever-more expansionist Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine also resulted in higher food prices as speculators purchased grain stores over projections that Russian forces could disrupt Urkaine’s food production and exports. First phase invasion into the Crimea did not block key grain ports. But tens of thousands of troops massed along the Ukraine border and likely continued incursions by Russian special forces units into Eastern Ukraine resulted in an ongoing destabilization of one of the world’s key grain producers.
In this context, it is worth noting that global harvest figures showed Russian wheat production falling from 61 million metric tons per year in 2009 to 38 million metric ton per year in 2012. Throughout this four-year period, Russia has been forced to curtail or cut off grain exports on numerous occasions as increasing periods of drought, fire and extreme weather resulted in loss of crops.
Meanwhile, wildfire season began early in Siberian Russia perhaps presaging a fire season that, when combined with the effects of an emerging El Nino, could be the worst seen since 2010 when Russia first cut off grain exports to the rest of the world.
Global Problem: Though the above list provides examples of where global food supply is most threatened by extreme weather related to climate change and/or a related set of conflicts over resources, it is important to note that the current food, resource, and climate crisis is now global in nature. Droughts and severe weather have left almost no region untouched and now result in substantial damage to crops at least once a year in even the most tranquil locations. Instances of ongoing and systemic drought are now common throughout various areas not mentioned above including: Australia, China, South America, Central America, The Middle East, Africa, India, and sections of Russia and Europe. So though blows to important “bread baskets” provide the most impact to overall food price and availability, a general state of agricultural disruption due to increasingly extreme climates blanketing the globe result in a far more challenging than usual base-line for food producers and consumers everywhere.
Hat-tip to Colorado Bob
Hat-tip to Miep