Sun, Aug 12, 2012 - Page 14 News List

El Nino raising fears over food prices

An FAO economist says the phenomenon could jeopardize crops in Australia and India, but those in China and South America might benefit

By Risa Maeda  /  Reuters, TOKYO

A deer jumps over a dry creek at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Hudson, Kansas, on Tuesday. Rain and cooler temperatures in the drought-stricken US Midwest crop belt will provide relief for late-season soybeans, but the change in the weather is arriving too late to help the already severely damaged corn crop, an agricultural meteorologist said on Wednesday.

Photo: Reuters

An El Nino weather pattern is under way and will last until winter, Japan said on Friday, foreshadowing disruptive conditions that could harm crops from Australia to India at a time of rising fears about global food supplies.

Corn prices have surged more than 60 percent in the past two months as the US reels from the worst drought in more than 50 years, while global soy supplies are also tight after a drought in South America.

Data suggested the El Nino phenomenon had emerged, the Japan Meteorological Agency said, referring to conditions in the equatorial Pacific.

“The chances are high that the El Nino phenomenon will be maintained until the winter,” the agency said in a statement.

Adding to worries, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Thursday the world was closer to a repeat of a 2008 food crisis because of a spike in food costs.

The big unknown is how intense and how long the developing El Nino phenomenon will be. An intense El Nino can cause widespread drought in Australia, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and India, but also bring rains to other parts of the globe.

While it can boost corn and soy crops in South America, wheat harvests can be devastated in Australia. Coffee, cocoa, rice and sugar output in Southeast Asia can also be hit. Officials said El Nino could kick in at the end of the Indian monsoon in September, hurting winter wheat, rapeseed and chickpea crops.

Drier weather would be good for China’s autumn grain growing period, mostly corn and soybean, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s total grain output, a senior Chinese meteorological official said.

El Nino is a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that occurs every four to 12 years. It is the opposite of the very closely related La Nina pattern, which often triggers floods in Australia and parts of Asia. Intense back-to-back La Nina episodes occurred during 2010 to this year.

The US Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, also warned on Thursday that an El Nino was almost certain to occur over the next two months.

The last severe El Nino in 1998 caused drought in Australia and Southeast Asia, withering crops and triggering forest fires.

El Nino can also bring warmer, wetter winters in Japan and parts of North America, but any rains might be too late for the parched US corn crop.

Concepcion Calpe, senior economist at the FAO, said she expected a mild El Nino to develop, but it could bring “some bad weather which could jeopardize crops in the coming months”.

“We expect more rain in the United States in the coming months, but it will be too late for the maize crop. It is impossible now [for it] to recover,” she said.

“But there is still time for the rains to boost soy yields. We are looking forward to having rain in August and September, that would be great for the soya crop,” she said.

Indonesia’s weather bureau said on Friday any El Nino would have limited impact on the country.

“A weak El Nino will reduce rainfall in eastern and central Indonesia, but not significantly,” weather bureau head Sri Woro B. Harijono told reporters.

However, in India, one of the world’s largest food producers and consumers, with a population of 1.2 billion, El Nino will likely mean a drop in rainfall from next month after an erratic monsoon.

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