Droughts could cause food prices to spike again.
Droughts could cause food prices to spike again.

In 2007, drought struck the bread baskets of Europe, Russia, Canada, and Australia. Global grain stocks were already scant, so wheat prices began to rise rapidly. When countries put up trade barriers to keep their own harvests from being exported, prices doubled, according to an index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Just 3 years later, another spike in food prices contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings.

Such weather-related crop disasters will become more likely with climate change, warns a detailed report released by the Global Food Security (GFS) program, a network of public research funding agencies in the United Kingdom. “The risks are serious and should be a cause for concern,” writes David King, the U.K. Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, in a foreword to the report.

To create the lengthy evaluation, dozens of scientists, policy wonks, and industry experts examined the global food system and its vulnerabilities to severe weather. They created a “plausible” worst case scenario: drought hitting four key staples—wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans—simultaneously. (The worrying precedents are a drought in 1988 to 1989 that cut yields of corn by an estimated 12% worldwide and soybeans by 8.5%, and a 2002 to 2003 drought that afflicted wheat and rice to a lesser extent.) If such a calamity struck next year, it would likely cause the price of grain to triple, the researchers suggest.

The chance of major global crop failures of this magnitude will increase with climate change, as drought, flooding, and heat waves strike fields more often. To estimate the odds, the researchers turned to existing models of how crops respond to temperature, precipitation, and other factors. By 2040, severe crop failures previously estimated to occur once a century are likely to happen every 3 decades, the report finds. The researchers emphasize that the risk analysis is preliminary. The report also highlights recent research indicating that the ever larger volumes of globally traded food raise the risk of large price shocks. Biofuel mandates, in which corn and other crops are turned into fuel, are thought to exacerbate the problem by cutting grain surpluses.

To sketch out possible economic and human impacts on a range of countries, the committee interviewed 50 experts from academia, government, and industry. Hardest hit would be developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Ethiopia, the authors note in an annex to the report, where people would go hungry. Protests might erupt in middle income countries that depend on food imports, including Egypt. Consumers in rich countries, in comparison, would not see much of an effect on their wallets or dinner tables.

“Action is urgently needed to understand risks better, improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks and to mitigate their impact on people,” said Tim Benton, a population ecologist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, who heads the GFS program, in a statement. The committee recommends coordinated international action, such as creating an early warning system for price spikes, and improving agricultural insurance to help farmers cope with climate change. But in dire cases, the report cautions, brace for the worst: “Governments and businesses need to prepare people for not being able to eat certain crops or products anymore.”