Food price spikes caused by extreme weather events like the US drought will become the norm over the next twenty years, leading to millions of deaths from malnutrition among the world’s poorest if Governments do not act on climate change, Oxfam has warned.
While the average price of staple foods is already expected to double in the next twenty years, the UK’s leading poverty charity predicts that separate catastrophes such as droughts, floods and bad harvests will also become more common as a result of climate change, leading to regular and dramatic jumps in prices.
The effect may have already been seen this year, the charity says. A 10 per cent rise in world food prices in July has been blamed on the severest drought in the USA in fifty years, along with dry weather in Eastern Europe and Kenya. Oxfam warned that policymakers have “underestimated” the full impact of climate change on future food prices.
“The huge potential impact of extreme weather events of future food prices is missing from today’s climate change debate,” said the charity’s climate change policy advisor Tim Gore. “Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns hold back crop production and cause steady prices rises. But extreme weather events – like the current US drought – can wipe out entire harvests and trigger dramatic food price spikes.”
July was the USA’s hottest month on record, contributing to the warmest 12 month period for the country since records began. Widespread drought has destroyed one sixth of the country’s corn crop and driven up staple food prices worldwide.
Oxfam predicted that future weather events on a similar scale, such as a flood in southern Africa or another drought in North America, could have a catastrophic impact on food prices within the next twenty years. Financial modelling suggested that one or more extreme events in a single year could cause two decades worth of price inflation to occur in a matter of months.
Yesterday the United Nations urged “swift, co-ordinated international action” to combat the current price spike, which has seen corn and wheat prices soar by 25 per cent, warning that “even in a good year, global grain production is barely sufficient to meet growing demands for food, feed and fuel.”
Policymakers will wish to avoid a repeat of the food crisis of 2008, in which the rising cost of grain, maize, rice and soya led to social unrest and riots in many parts of Africa, South America and Asia. New UN task forces were set up in the wake of the 2008 crisis to co-ordinate the trade, production and aid policies of the world’s governments in the event of another price spike.
In a joint statement, three UN food agencies called on governments to take long term steps such as investing in agriculture in food importing countries, to safeguard them against future price shocks.
The statement from the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) said that weather had been the driver of each three international food spikes in the past five years.
“Until we find the way to shock-proof and climate-proof our food system, the danger will remain,” the statement said.
The UN statement stopped short of calling an emergency meeting of the Rapid Response Forum, set up in the wake of 2008 crisis. Oxfam said that world leaders were “dragging their feet” and that failure to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions “made a future crisis more likely.”