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Extreme weather events help drive food prices to record highs

Food priceIn 2009, Lester Brown and Scientific American asked “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” This summer’s extreme global weather raised fears of a “Coming Food Crisis,” as CAP’s John D. Podesta and Jake Caldwell warned in Foreign Policy: “Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse.”

Now the Financial Times reports the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s “food price index, a basket tracking the wholesale cost of wheat, corn, rice, oilseeds, dairy products, sugar and meats, has jumped to a record high, surpassing in December the peak of the 2007-08 food crisis” (see figure).

As ClimateWire and SciAm explains,”world food prices hit a record high in December thanks to crop failures from a series of extreme weather events around the world“:

The United Nations’ top food agency announced yesterday that world food prices hit a record high last month, igniting concerns among agricultural experts who are thinking back to the food riots that gripped developing countries just three years ago.

“It’s a worrisome situation with prices this high,” said Dan Gustafson, the director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Washington, D.C., office. “The year ahead is what I think is the real concern at this point. … It’s not by any means inevitable that prices will come down,” he said….

FAO attributes the upswing in prices to factors including the crop failures caused by a string of extreme weather events and high crop demands from an ever-increased global population. Many experts have linked the series of floods and fires with climate change.

“We can never tell if any particular weather event is impacted by climate change, but I can say there is every expectation we will see more of these weather events in the future and that these events certainly have an impact,” said Jerry Nelson, a senior research fellow coordinating climate change work at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Wheat, for example, bludgeoned by Russia’s wildfires, the heat waves in Australia and flooding in Pakistan, saw massive price surges last fall.

“The record rise in food prices is a grave reminder that until we act on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change, we will find ourselves perpetually on the knife’s edge of disaster,” said Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America, in a statement.

Particularly worrisome is that oil — a key in put to agricultural production and transport — is already at $90 a barrel and we’re just coming out of the deepest global recession since the Great Depression.

At the same time, the countries top climatologists, NASA’s James Hansen, warns:

Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.

And so the combination of peak oil and extreme weather is likely to create growing food insecurity this decade, particularly since the nation and the world have decided to take no action to address either problem.

We’re already seeing rising hunger in the least developed countries. Lester Brown warns, “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse.”

The time to act was long, long ago, but failure to act now is beyond immoral.

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