How drought and war are really affecting the global food supply

Even if these differences even out on national averages — possibly even globally, if you compare Southern Hemisphere production to the US and Western Europe, or America to Central Europe and Asia — there’s a lingering sense that things are, well, shaky. Some of the changes in productivity are due to farmers’ choices, e.g. B. the decision to plant more to make up for a dry year, or less to mitigate fertilizer price hikes caused by Russia’s reluctance to export. However, some are undoubtedly due to unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change, disrupting farmers’ routines and damaging crops already in the fields.

“We’re seeing longer dry spells leading up to the next rain event, and that next rain event is more likely to come in the form of heavy rain that ends up running off,” because the soil has hardened, says Beth Hall, director of the Indiana State Climate Office at Purdue University. “The crop success this year in the US, in the broader Midwest region, was all about when farmers could plant their fields. The ones that were planted earlier had roots deep enough that when it was dry they could tap into some low moisture.” But when the fields were muddy from rain and farmers couldn’t get in, she adds, they planted later – and the root systems were shorter and unable to hold new plants heavily until the next downpour came.

Of course, farmers have always been annoyed by the weather. The challenge for crop experts right now is determining whether droughts and other disruptions — and the crop failures they can cause — add up to a predictable trend. That’s especially important because while overall productivity doesn’t look bad, there aren’t many excess grain stocks thanks to isolated droughts last year and the supply shock as Ukraine’s breadbasket was temporarily excluded from the global food system.

“The important thing about stocks is that you can use them during a drought to keep prices reasonable — because when they go very low, prices become volatile,” says Joseph Faithr, senior research fellow at the nonprofit International Food Policy research institute and former USDA chief economist. “I think people were hoping that stocks would be rebuilt, basically that we were going to have really big harvests this year. But there is this drought and weather disruption around the world, although not all shoes have fallen yet.”

No one working in agricultural economics has forgotten that high grain prices sparked civil unrest around the world more than a decade ago: riots in Haiti, South America and South Asia in 2008 and 2009, and the Arab Spring of 2010. And yet no one thinks things are that bad. “It’s easy to underestimate how flexible production can be,” says Sumner. “The current droughts don’t look nearly as bad as we’ve seen at least half a dozen times in my career.”

And future bottlenecks are likely to be unequally distributed. In some parts of the world, droughts have lasted long enough to disrupt food production. The people who bear the brunt of this disorder lack the income or power to alleviate their suffering. Historically, the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya – experiences rainy seasons twice a year, from October to December and again from March to May, and the rainfall is crucial for feeding people and livestock. The last four rainy seasons have all failed. The most recent, which should have ended last May, was the driest on record. A third of the region’s livestock have died. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a project of the US Agency for International Development and international nonprofit organizations, estimates that up to 20 million people are starving.

In the past, governments in other parts of the world sent food aid. This year, thanks to droughts and supply shocks, that response is not coming on the usual scale or pace. Wheat from Ukraine, for example, would have been a staple, but the first shipment from there only came on 30.8. “Usually we can move food from one region to another to make up for losses; The international community, the UN World Food Program, has the ability to bring food to crisis situations,” says Christine Stewart, director of the Institute for Global Nutrition at the University of California, Davis. “The problem is that we currently have so many overlapping crises that the backup system is under immense stress.”

The Horn of Africa is an extreme case, but perhaps also a glimpse into the future. The global food system exists so that surpluses can be traded to areas where crops are scarce. It works, for now. But as weather becomes less predictable and droughts more frequent, production may become less reliable – and getting food to the most vulnerable could grind to a halt.

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