Freak weather in some of the world’s vital food-producing regions is ravaging crops and threatening another global food crisis like the price shocks that unleashed social and political unrest in 2008 and 2010, food experts are warning.
As the US suffers the worst drought in more than 50 years, analysts say rising food prices could hit the world’s poorest countries, leading to shortages and social upheaval.
The situation has led to comparisons to 2008, when high food prices sparked a wave of riots in 30 countries across the world from Haiti to Bangladesh. Researchers say rising food prices also helped trigger the Arab spring last year.
“Food riots are a real risk at this point. Wheat prices aren’t up at the level they got to in 2008, but they are still very high and that will have an effect on those who are least able to pay higher prices for food,” said Nick Higgins, a commodity analyst at Rabobank.
In the US’s agricultural heartland, searing heat and sparse rainfall have left farmers helpless as their maize and soya bean crops wither in dry fields. Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) slashed forecasts for the maize crop by 12 percent. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said: “If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.”
As it is, weather forecasts suggest the drought will continue and experts fear the USDA may have to cut its targets again next month.
“We’ve been traipsing through the fields of southern Illinois and it is worse than the government says,” said Dan Basse, president of research firm AgResources in Chicago.
The US is crucial to global food markets as the world’s largest exporter of maize, soya beans and wheat. Maize prices have already shot up 40 percent since last month to hit all-time highs, soya bean prices have jumped 30 percent to record levels and wheat has surged 50 percent.
“What happens to the US supply has an immense impact around the world,” said Robert Thompson, a food security expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If the price of corn rises high enough, it also pulls up the price of wheat. I think we are in for a very serious situation worldwide.”
Thompson also warned that countries could make matters worse by stockpiling. That was the pattern during the 2008 food crisis, when Russia, Ukraine, India and Argentina all cut off grain exports.
Unseasonal weather, thought to be caused by climate change, is affecting farmers across the world. South America has been hit by a drought, which could damage the soya bean harvest, while UK wheat has been damaged by the rain. Flash flooding in Russia could also affect the wheat harvest, which could see the country limit exports.
Shortages have been compounded by huge orders for maize and soya beans to make biofuels in order to meet quotas in the US and Europe.
Rising food prices have a disproportionate effect on the poorest people in the world. According to Ruth Kelly, Oxfam’s food policy adviser, people in the West spend about 15 percent of their income on food, but that rises to around 75 percent in developing countries.