Program on Food Security and the Environment: A climate ripe for high food prices?

The recent run-up in global food prices is wreaking well-documented havoc throughout the developing world. As prices for major food staples have doubled or tripled over the past 12–18 months, food riots have broken out in more than a dozen countries, and the president of the World Bank has suggested that the rise in food prices will push 100 million people below the poverty line, undoing decades of economic growth almost overnight. FSE’s Peter Timmer calculates that high rice prices alone could cause the premature death of 10 million people in Asia. It is difficult to imagine an issue of more pressing global importance today.

Ongoing FSE research is focusing on which agricultural adaptations should be prioritized, for what crops, and in what locations.Getting prices down out of the stratosphere of course involves understanding what got them there in the first place. And while there is much disagreement over the primacy of different factors, most analysis seems to agree on three important contributors. The first is the recent expansion of biofuels production in the United States and the European Union, which has diverted corn and other grains from traditional feed and food markets into the production of fuel. Turning grain into fuel has been made increasingly profitable by the high and rising price of oil — the second factor in rising food prices — which, in addition to increasing demand for petroleum alternatives, has raised the production costs of farmers, raising transport costs and increasing the price of farm inputs like diesel and fertilizer. Finally, the agricultural and trade policies of various governments around the world have added to the problem, particularly as the nervous governments of a few key Asian rice exporters have attempted to stabilize domestic food supplies by restricting exports, helping send rice prices through the roof.

As these factors have come together in recent months, underwritten by longer-run trends of rising incomes and food demand in the developing world, many analysts have reached for the appealing metaphor of the “perfect storm,” invoking a situation in which everything that could have gone wrong did. But are things really as bad as they might have been?

Perhaps not. The recent spike in food prices saw only a half-hearted contribution from one of the main culprits in past short-run price swings: weather. A bad weather year that harms production in important producing regions often sends prices soaring. One of the best examples is an extreme el Nino event of the sort that occurs roughly once a decade, during which drought cripples rice production throughout much of Southeast Asia. Earlier work by FSE researchers showed that global rice prices can rise 50 percent or more as a result of extreme el Nino events.

The recent food price spikes were certainly not without influence from the weather. For instance, the much-cited long-run drought in Australia — traditionally a large wheat exporter — certainly has put upward pressure on global wheat prices, and there were modest weather-related declines in yield in other parts of the world (such as Russia and Ukraine). On the whole, however, supply disruptions over the past few years have been minor, and favorable weather is expected to result in record harvests for many large food- and feedproducing nations in coming months. But agricultural markets have hardly responded to this good news and prices remain at or near all time highs.

What then might a perfect storm actually look like? Add the effects of climate change to the current mix of biofuels, high oil prices, and trade restrictions, and the recent rise in food prices could be a small measure of things to come. Research is expanding rapidly in the field of climate change impacts, and researchers at FSE are at the forefront of understanding the implications of climate change for humanity’s ability to feed itself. The conventional wisdom has long been that a modest amount of climate change could actually be beneficial for global agriculture, with warming temperatures perhaps lengthening the growing season and expanding the areas in which we can grow crops. But recent work by researchers at FSE and others suggests that climate change could hurt agriculture immediately and, in some places, severely.

The rise in food prices will push 100 million people below the poverty line, undoing decades of economic growth almost overnight. High rice prices alone could cause the premature death of 10 million people in Asia.In a paper published in the January issue of the journal Science, an FSE research team led by David Lobell examined the likely effects of climate change on agriculture throughout the developing world. Combining data from a suite of climate models that simulate future changes in rainfall and precipitation with a host of historical data on climate and agricultural production, Lobell and colleagues found that by 2030 the production of staple crops in some of the poorest parts of sub- Saharan Africa could decline by 30 percent or more in the absence of adaptation, with somewhat smaller declines predicted for much of South and Southeast Asia. Production declines of this magnitude represent monumental declines in welfare for some of the poorest people on earth, the same populations currently being buffeted by high food prices.

Unfortunately, new evidence also questions the ability of higher latitude countries such as the United States to cover the production shortfalls in the developing world. Again contrary to perceived wisdom, this new work shows that climate change could immediately harm agriculture in this country and other large exporting regions, further constraining global supply. Such a climate-induced supply shock, in the context of the recent developments on the demand side for food, could give us a true perfect storm for high food prices. Recent price spikes might only pale in comparison.

Given the imminence and magnitude of the production decline possible and the attendant possibilities for rising food prices and hunger throughout the developing world, FSE researchers are turning from predicting impacts to assessing adaptation options. In particular, ongoing research is focusing on which agricultural adaptations should be prioritized, for what crops, and in what locations. To that end, FSE researchers recently received a $350,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation — one of the most important funders of agricultural research — to help the foundation prioritize agricultural investments in sub-Saharan Africa in the face of climate change. With the potentially severe impacts of climate change already on our doorstep, there is little time to lose.