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05 SEP 2012

Food price spikes will worsen as extreme weather caused by climate change devastates food production – Oxfam

New research shows that the full impact of climate change on future food prices is being underestimated, according to international agency Oxfam.

Oxfam’s new report, Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices, highlights for the first time how extreme weather events such as droughts and floods could drive up future food prices. Previous research only tends to consider long term average and gradual impacts, such as increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

Oxfam’s research seeks to go beyond this and look at the impact of extreme weather scenarios on food prices in 2030. Mindful of this year’s US drought, the most severe in over half a century and the kind of event predicted to occur more frequently, the Oxfam research, based on modeling by the leading international development research institute IDS[2], projects a similar US drought in 2030 and calculates temporary picce fluctuations. In 2030,the world could be even more vulnerable to the kind of drought happening today in the US, with dependence on US exports of wheat and maize predicted to rise and climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme droughts in North America.

The Oxfam research suggests that China will be a significant importer of wheat and rice by 2030 while its maize imports are also expected to rise. Food prices in China will become increasingly vulnerable to price spikes driven by extreme weather events in major crop exporting regions. And more extreme weather is projected for regions exporting wheat (i.e. the US) and rice (i.e. East Asia, the US and India). While in 2012, China's food prices and food security may be relatively insulated from the current drought in the US. China is going to be much more vulnerable to such shocks in the future.

 The research also finds:

  • Even under a conservative scenario, another US drought in 2030 could raise the price of maize by as much as 140% over and above the average price of food in 2030, which is already likely to be double today’s prices.
  • Impacts on domestic prices in many countries could be huge. The model shows that, for example, another US drought in 2030 could raise the price of maize in China by 76% and the price of wheat by 55%. These temporary fluctuations would occur in addition to predicted average price increases due to climate change impacts on agriculture productivity.
  • Drought and flooding in southern Africa could increase the consumer price of maize and other coarse grains by as much as 120%.  Price spikes of this magnitude today would mean the cost of a 25kg bag of corn meal – a staple which feeds poor families across Africa for about two weeks – would rocket from around US$18 to US$40.
  • A nationwide drought in India and extensive flooding across Southeast Asia could see the world market price of rice increase by 25%. This could see domestic spikes of up to 43% on top of longer term price rises in rice importing countries such as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

Oxfam Hong Kong Policy and Campaign Director, Mr. Sun Xuebing said such price spikes would be a massive blow to the world’s poorest who today spend up to 75% of their income on food.

“Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns hold back crop production and cause steady price rises. But extreme weather events – like the current US drought – can wipe out entire harvests and trigger dramatic food price spikes.

“We will all feel the impact as prices spike but the poorest people will be hit hardest.

“The huge potential impact of extreme weather events on future food prices is missing from today’s climate change debate. The world needs to wake up to the drastic consequences facing our food system of climate inaction,” Sun said.

The research also warns that climate shocks in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to have an increasingly dramatic impact in 2030 as 95% of grains such as maize, millet and sorghum that are consumed in sub-Saharan Africa could come from the region itself.

“As emissions continue to soar, extreme weather in the US and elsewhere provides a glimpse of our future food system in a warming world. Our planet is heading for average global warming of 2.5–5°C this century. It is time to face up to what this means for hunger and malnutrition for millions of people on our planet,” Sun said.

“Our governments ‘stress tested’ the banks after the financial crisis. We now need to stress test the global food system under climate change to identify where we are most vulnerable. Governments must also act now to slash rising greenhouse gas emissions, reverse decades of under investment in small scale agriculture in poor countries, and provide the additional money needed to help poor farmers adapt to a changing climate.”  

The report comes as UN talks aimed at tackling climate change close in Bangkok today with little sign of progress; while tomorrow the Food and Agriculture Organization is due to publish further information on how the worst US drought in sixty years is impacting on global food prices. The report is part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign which aims to create a world where everyone has enough to eat, always.

Notes to editors:

A copy of the report Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices: Feeding a warming world can be downloaded here.

The research was commissioned by Oxfam and carried out by Dirk Willenbockel of the Institute of Development Studies. The research assesses what impact four hypothetical extreme events in 2030 could have on food prices in addition to projected long term price rises.