Maybe lack of surprise is going to be a theme this week…
Agriculture, throughout human history, has been heavily dependent on predictable weather conditions. We have crops for every climate in which we live, but, they’re always tailored to the natural conditions, or to alterations like irrigation that rely on natural conditions. That means that we’ve known for a long time that, as climate change is now well underway and has planet-sized momentum, that our food supply will be affected. Just as increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere means that the planet will trap more heat until the new “insulation” is saturated, there’s no scenario in which that warming doesn’t change agriculture.
This past year has been a rough one for agriculture, and because our ability to access food is tied to markets and capitalism’s endless need for profit, that means that food prices are rising.
Global food prices in November rose 1.2% compared to October, and were at their highest level since June 2011 (unadjusted for inflation), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in its monthly report on December 2. After adjusting for inflation, 2021 food prices averaged for the 11 months of 2021 are the highest in 46 years.
The high prices come despite expectations that total global production of grains in 2021 will set an all-time record: 0.7% higher than the previous record set in 2020. But because of higher demand (in part, from an increased amount of wheat and corn used to feed animals), the 2021 harvest is not expected to meet consumption requirements in 2021/2022, resulting in a modest drawdown in global grain stocks by the end of 2022, to their lowest levels since 2015/2016.
The November increase in global food prices was largely the result of a surge in prices of grains and dairy products, with wheat prices a dominant driver. In an interview at fortune.com, Carlos Mera, head of agri commodities market research at Rabobank, blamed much of the increase in wheat prices on drought and high temperatures hitting major wheat producers including the U.S., Canada, and Russia.
Drought and heat in the U.S. caused a 40% decline in the spring wheat crop in 2021, and a 10% decline in the total wheat crop (spring wheat makes up about 25% of total U.S. wheat production). Economic damages to agriculture in the U.S. are expected to exceed $5 billion in 2021, according to Aon (see Tweet below). The highest losses are expected in the Northern Plains, where the spring wheat crop was hit hard by drought and heat. Fortunately, the 2021 U.S. corn crop was estimated to be the second largest on record, 7% larger than in 2020. The 2021 soybean crop was also estimated to be second largest on record, up 5% from 2020.
According to Reuters, global fertilizer prices have increased 80% this year, reaching their highest levels since the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Primary causes of the current high prices include extreme weather events (particularly the February cold wave in Texas and Hurricane Ida in August), which disrupted U.S. fertilizer production, and the high cost in Europe of natural gas, a key component in producing fertilizer). Fertilizer shortages threaten to reduce grain harvests in 2022, according to CF Industries, a major fertilizer producer.
Carlos Mera of Rabobank pointed out that Russia, a major wheat producer, hiked its export tax on wheat this year to incentivize keeping supplies at home. “That is quite scary,” said Mera. “Events like the French Revolution and the Arab Spring have been blamed on high food prices.” High wheat prices in 2011 (in the wake of export restrictions triggered by the 2010 drought in Russia) helped lead to massive civil unrest and the toppling of multiple governments (the “Arab Spring”).
As I will keep saying, we need to make radical changes to how we produce food, if we want to avoid mass starvation in my lifetime. More than that, as the article mentions, food shortages will cause political unrest and war, which in turn is bad for the environment, bad for agriculture, and in case this needs to be said, bad for humans. I’m also very worried that the nationalistic, and in some cases piratical behavior by wealthy and powerful nations will mean that the pattern of enforced poverty will continue, unless those of us living in those nations stand up to our own governments, in solidarity with those whose lives will be destroyed to keep us fed and happy.
I’m writing this as Storm Barra, which Wikipedia tells me is a “hurricane-force bomb extratropical cyclone”, rages outside. There has been some rain, but most of what I’ve noticed has been the wind. My area is already pretty windy, but this storm is really highlighting the degree to which cold temperatures haven’t been a problem here. Damp, and the mold it brings, is a constant concern, so there hasn’t been a lot of pressure to do things like make sure windows and their frames are fully sealed (it’s free ventilation!), and the flat has vents to the outside in every room. This means that while our home provides real shelter, it’s also very drafty, and doesn’t hold heat very well.
I’m wearing a wool sweater, a wool capote, and a fleece-lined wool hat over my clothes, because I don’t want to waste the gas or the money to keep the flat at a more comfortable temperature. It always strikes me as strange when I’m thinking about the horrors caused by global warming, while dressing like I’m outdoors to keep warm; it’s also the nature of climate change. The cold and darkness of winter can make it easy to feel like this crisis is still far enough away that we have time, but the numbers consistently point in the same direction – we’ve been out of time for a while now, and we should probably start acting like it.
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