To date, research on food prices and climate change has looked almost exclusively at the averages: how gradually rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will affect long-run average prices.
It points to a future of higher food prices: Oxfam research (pdf) published last year suggested food prices could double in the next 20 years with up to half the increase due to climate change.
Alarming, but only half the story.
Climate change will also lead to an increase in extreme weather, such as droughts, floods and heatwaves. As today’s US drought lays bare, extreme weather can wipe out harvests and drive up prices precipitously in the short term (the latest figures have been released today by the FAO).
But current research does not account for how these extremes might affect future global food prices.
Oxfam’s report shows that in the coming decades the world will be even more vulnerable to such a drought in the US, as dependence on US exports of maize and wheat is set to increase, just as climate change makes drought in the US more likely. Even based on a conservative scenario, the research shows a drought of similar magnitude to the US drought in 1988 could raise the price of maize by as much as 140 per cent in 2030.
As global price increases are transmitted to local markets, they have devastating impacts for poor people, who may spend up to 75% of their income on food. Countries that rely on food imports are the worst affected by global price increases – such as Yemen, which today relies on imports for 90% of its wheat and where currently 10 million people are hungry and 267,000 children at risk of death from malnutrition.
The report also highlights how sub-Saharan Africa will be highly vulnerable to extreme weather shocks in the region. Drought and flooding of equivalent magnitude to that seen in Southern Africa in 1995 could see domestic prices surge by 120%. Such price rises have dramatic impacts on levels of consumption – in short, people go hungry.
Governments ‘stress-tested’ the banks after the financial crisis; our global food system is also too big to fail, and needs stress-testing to fully assess and address its critical thresholds in relation to climate change.