As the worst U.S. drought in more than half a century persists, experts are calling for international action to avoid a repeat of the worldwide food price crisis of 2008.
Sixty-two per cent of America’s farms are in drought-struck areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of last year, U.S. exports of maize and soybeans accounted for more than 40 per cent of total world exports.
Corn prices have surged more than 60 per cent due to the drought. Worldwide, corn stocks are at set to reach their lowest levels in six years, according to the International Grains Council.
The 2008 food price crisis saw some countries restrict food exports and sparked large-scale rioting in severely affected regions in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
As the fears of a new crisis intensify, a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change says the United States will suffer a series of severe droughts in the next two decades. Global warming will play an increasingly important role in their abundance and severity, study author and climate researcher Aiguo Dai told the Washington Post.
The findings bolster conclusions from climate models that have predicted severe droughts in coming decades over many land areas. Using a statistical method with data about sea surface temperatures, Dai found that the model accurately portrayed historic climate events.
“We can now be more confident that the models are correct,” Dai said, “but unfortunately, their predictions are dire.”
Aid agency Oxfam says its teams around the world are bracing themselves for the ripple effect that rising corn, soy and wheat prices will have on poor populations that rely on food imports and are already in weak condition.
“There was nothing surprising about this. We knew months ahead that we were going to be facing shortages, and severe malnutrition, and we’re just not rising to the occasion,” said Oxfam Canada executive director Robert Fox. “We can mobilize resources when we choose to, and the G20 clearly has the critical role in doing that.”
One big problem, experts say, is mandatory ethanol production targets in Europe and the U.S. About 40 per cent of the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol production.
In the short term, reducing biofuel requirements would relieve some pressure on corn production globally, Fox said.
Small-scale agricultural investment in food-scarce West Africa, boosting global food reserves, and curbing damaging commodity speculation could all help avoid a potential crisis, Fox said.
On Monday, Reuters reported that France, the United States and current G20 president Mexico will hold a conference call at the end of this month to discuss whether an emergency international meeting is required to tackle soaring grain prices.
If a meeting is convened, it would be the first of the G20’s Rapid Response Forum, a body created last year to “promote early discussion among decision-makers about abnormal market conditions, with the aim of avoiding unilateral action.” Such a meeting could be called as soon as the start of September, Reuters reported.
The G20 call will include the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a spokesman said. Last week, the organization said its food index jumped 6 per cent in July, to a higher level than in 2008, and it warned against the kind of export bans and tariffs that worsened the price surge four years ago.
In 2007 and 2008, a number of countries restricted the export of grain as prices began to skyrocket. This year, bad weather has affected Russia’s grain harvests, but the country has denied it will ban exports.
Fox said it’s too early to tell what impact a meeting of the Rapid Response Forum would have on the situation, if any.
“I think that governments know what they need to do,” he said. “Whether they have the political will to do it isn’t clear.”