Climate Change

Why Are Food Prices Rising? Check the Weather


Farmer Albert Walsh walks through a drought-damaged cornfield in Carmi, Ill., on July 11, 2012

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Farmer Albert Walsh walks through a drought-damaged cornfield in Carmi, Ill., on July 11, 2012

Droughts, floods, typhoons, hurricanes, and other forms of extreme weather have devastated crops since the beginning of time. But, as the effects of climate change on our weather become more frequent—and intense—the world’s food supply is subject to more calamity and volatility. Erratic weather can be a significant factor in food shortages and higher prices for everything from wheat and rice to fruits and vegetables to meat and poultry. Here’s a look over the last few years at the local, regional, and global effects of extreme weather on agriculture around the world.

2010

Russia
Severe drought leads to the loss of one-quarter of the country’s wheat crop, and forest fires rage across 2.4 million acres. In September 2010, wheat prices reach 60 percent to 80 percent higher than at the beginning of the season in July. Estimated damage: $1.4 billion*.

Pakistan
Heavy monsoon rains bring the country’s worst flooding ever recorded, destroying 5.9 million acres of land producing major crops including wheat, rice, tobacco, and cotton. The floods kill 450,000 livestock. Estimated damage: $2.9 billion.

Amazon River Basin
Severe drought leads the Rio Negro, a major tributary to the Amazon River, to drop to its lowest level ever recorded, hurting soybean crops.

North Africa
Wheat crop production for the North Africa region falls about 18 percent from 2009 levels, the result of insufficient soil moisture at planting and erratic rains from May to September in the main growing areas of Morocco and Tunisia.

2011

Horn of Africa
In eastern Africa, the drought-induced humanitarian crisis, especially in famine-ravaged southern Somalia, claims tens of thousands of lives. The worst drought in several decades hurts crop production, depletes grazing areas, and causes major loss of livestock. Aid to the region is estimated at $2.5 billion.

Thailand
Monsoon rains and storms from July through January cause flash floods that devastate Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, and rattle an already thin global supply of an important dietary staple. Estimated damage: $1.3 billion.

U.S. Mid-Atlantic/New England
Hurricane Irene sweeps across regions that are usually unaffected by hurricanes, causing unprecedented crop damage when rivers overflow their banks. Estimated damage: $7.4 billion.

U.S. Central and Southern Plains
Severe drought causes the country’s 2011 wheat output to drop significantly, costing the U.S. a projected $20 billion.

2012

Sahel
In several parts of West Africa, agricultural production is hurt by late rains, long dry spells, and significant pest infestations. Cereal production across the region is 26 percent lower than in 2010. More than 18 million people require emergency assistance, which costs an estimated $1.6 billion.

U.S. Midwest
Severe drought wreaks havoc on soybean and corn crops. At the end of July, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows 88 percent of corn and 87 percent of soybean crops are in drought-stricken regions and 64 percent of the continental U.S. is under moderate to extreme drought—the largest area in more than 50 years. Analysts expect food prices to increase, especially prices for meat.

*All figures in U.S. dollars

Sources: Food Tank: The Food Think Tank and Oxfam used quarterly Cereal and Crop Prospect reports from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to make cost estimates.

Sager is director of special projects for Businessweek.com.

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