A hotter planet means more extreme weather. Extreme weather means more expensive food.

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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  1. says

    Fertilizer production depends heavily on fixing nitrogen from the air, using the Haber-Bosch process which is generally great except it consumes a lot of energy. So, fertilizer costs will track energy costs, plus, at a minimum. We’re also going to lose arable land as some areas flood/salinize/become dead zones/die from the heat. It’s going to be seriously bad, because any new areas that become arable will need fertilizer if crop yields will be kept high.

    It’s as if Malthus was right all along.

  2. says

    @Marcus – I’m 99.9% sure you’re joking about Malthus, but on the off chance someone reading thinks his ideas were good, I’ll just point out that the way we do agriculture NOW is not how we HAVE to do agriculture, nor is it the only way to feed large numbers of people.

    This is a crisis driven by the vicious attitudes Malthus championed, and dealing with it will require rejecting that eugenicist “reasoning” and actually giving a shit about all of humanity, rather than orchestrating starvation and disease for poor people.

  3. Who Cares says

    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.

    it is not ‘will cause’, it already has. The ignition of the mess in Syria was years of, according to scientists, global warming induced drought. See this link.
    Syria is also a good example of the behavior of the wealthy nations. The US instead of helping (which if done correctly can create better allies, see the Marshall plan, then nations where rulers need to keep the population calm at gunpoint) saw an opportunity for regime change for the price of an item out of the discount bin in a dollar store.

    The fertilizer problem has already been highlighted in the UK, 40% to 60% (or more since that was just the biggest producer) of the total production shutdown due to the increased gas price. The knock on effect was the loss of bottled CO2 for things like butchering plants to sedate livestock, packaging that keeps food fresh for longer, and fizzy drinks. It didn’t take long for the government to step in and subsidize manufacturing for several weeks.

  4. Dunc says

    Yeah, it’s the extremes that cause the real problems… I’m a long-time allotment (vegetable) gardener, so I know that you need to plant a good variety of crops because every year is different, and the conditions never suit everything – so you plant a lot of different stuff and hope that whatever happens, something will do OK. Last year, however, we broke seasonal records for heat, cold, drought, and rain, all in the same growing season… While there are plenty of crops that will tolerate any one of those conditions, and some that will tolerate a combination of two of them, there’s very few things that can cope with all four.

  5. says

    @Who Cares – yup. I’m not super happy with my wording there – I was more trying to say that one is the inevitable result of the other, based on our understanding of physics and ecology.

    @Dunc – I’m sorry to hear you got hit with that, but I appreciate hearing your experience. Statistics are important, but anecdotes and personal stories can carry a lot of rhetorical weight when it comes to making people think about difficult topics like this.

  6. says

    I’m not saying Malthus was a great guy. But I don’t see what part about populations growing until they run out of food or choke in their byproducts isn’t kind of familiar in this situation.

    You might enjoy The Alchemy of Air which is a pretty cool history of Haber/Bosch and the development of nitrogen fixing. One thing it mentioned that surprised me was the guano islands and the wars over Peruvian/Chilean/Bolivian nitrate fields. The belief at the time was apparently that agriculture was going to fail if there were no sources of nitrate (and nitrates featured heavily in world war 1!) anyhow, the account has it that the British, at least, were aware that a potential collapse of agriculture was in the works.

    The question of whether we can do agriculture differently, and whether we can support massive populations with a different form of agriculture – those are interesting. Unfortunately, we may not know. High yield wheat and rice didn’t come along until after Haber/Bosch, so maybe humans would have faced an agricultural collapse before Borlaug set the clock back a few decades.

    I think it’s a bit simplistic to say whether someone “thinks Malthus’ ideas were good” implying that one might think all of Malthus’ ideas were good, or accurate. That’s like saying someone believes in all of Darwin, or none of it. No, there are ideas that have been modified and adopted and challenged and changed – and I don’t think we need to accept Malthus’ racism in order to observe that populations in closed ecosystems can exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. That’s hardly a radical observation.

  7. says

    As I understand it, Malthus believed that our population would outgrow our farming capacity. That’s not what has happened, and it’s not really what’s driving modern crises. Overproduction isn’t the same as overconsumption, and the Malthusian solutions, which are still pretty popular today, won’t actually solve the problem.

    Like – it’s a choice for people to be going hungry right now – a choice of which Malthus would approve. Food prices are going up partly because of supply, but mainly because of how our global society assigns value. We still have enough food to feed everybody, and as with the famines occurring today, the climate-driven famines of the future (at the beginning, anyway) will happen despite there being enough food for everyone, if we continue on the current trajectory. Likewise, there are ways to produce food that WON’T be directly affected by climate change, and that will almost certainly be less destructive to the environment, if we actually bother to scale those up. We’re not facing a meaningful material shortage.

    I agree that there are similarities, but I think what’s actually happening is quite different from the doom Malthus predicted, and that has implications for what we do going forward, so I believe it’s worth pushing back on this.

    This feels closer to conflating the appearance of design in nature, with the belief that nature had a Designer

  8. Dunc says

    Borlaug himself said “the green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space […] But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.” He was extremely concerned that population growth would outstrip agricultural capacity – the fact that it hasn’t happened yet does not mean that it’s not a real possibility. It’s what eventually happens to every population in the absence of predation, unless something else clobbers them first.

  9. says

    Right now, climate change is set to clobber us first, and there’s a growing portion of the population that wants to do genocide about it, so conjuring Malthus seems ill-advised, to me. That’s also why I feel it’s important to point out what is and is not happening with regard to that particular fear for the future. Famine due to climate change could be argued to be a function of population size, simply because fewer people require less food, but that gets us no closer to a non-murderous solution, nor is the number of people the cause of the food shortage, any more than the population – by itself – is the cause of global warming. It’s not unrelated, but neither is it the primary driving factor, and approaching these problems from the population perspective first makes it more likely that people will seize on that as “the” problem in need of solving, which either leads to needless death, or inaction in other areas.

    The best path to slowing population growth is to see everyone’s needs met, including access to birth control, but lowering the population isn’t a viable response to climate change.

  10. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Frankly, seemingly everyone in this thread

    It’s as if Malthus was right all along.

    I know I’ve explained it to most of you before, but here we go again. Malthus was wrong because he predicted a vicious cycle of exponential population growth. More resource consumption -> more babies -> even more resource consumption. However, Malthus is clearly wrong. Look at any industrialized country in the world, and their birth rates per woman are already below breakeven.

    You also want to watch the company that you’re keeping. Malthus and the neo-Malthusians that you’re indirectly relying on are some of the biggest racists. The not-so-hidden message of famous replays of the Malthus idea is that it’s “those people”, aka non-white people, who are having too many babies.

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