Is a Global Food Shortage Looming?

Trend watchers have noticed weather playing some cruel tricks on farmers around the world, leading some, like geopolitical trends analyst F. William Engdahl, to recently consider “Do We Face A Global Food Disaster?

While noting that “significant shortfalls” in rainfall and crop production are “not grounds for declaring global emergency,” Engdahl notes some things worth considering, especially the overabundance of rain in the Midwest. “A major factor in the disruption of the US Midwest growing season is the fact that the past 12 months have seen the greatest precipitation levels since the US Government began keeping statistics in 1895.” At the same time, droughts have been hitting crops in the Philippines, North Korea and Australia, he notes.

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Weather patterns around the globe have been fractious, he observes, though not especially extreme, and he attributed them to natural variations such as a “relatively weak El Nino,” rather than manmade environmental causes.

Is there anything to worry about here?

We turned to two Alabama experts on the subject. Roy Spencer is principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Earth System Science Center. Henry Kinnucan is a professor in Auburn University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.

Roy Spencer, UAH
While this’s year’s corn crop (and soybeans) looks like it will be quite poor due to late planting from saturated fields, crop yields in the U.S. and around the world have been fairly steadily increasing for decades, with no end in sight.

Most of the increase is due to technology (seed varieties, farming practices), and increasing atmospheric CO2 is also helping, which causes “global greening” and fertilizes crops. The negative weather effects of increasing CO2 have not yet been felt on agriculture.

This year’s problem in the U.S. can be traced to the unusually cold weather that just wouldn’t leave the Northern Plains after winter ended. This set up a strong temperature contrast with the normal warm, moist air to the east and south, causing persistent rains and severe weather.

This has nothing to do with global warming, in fact it’s the kind of thing we should see less of with global warming.

Henry Kinnucan, Auburn University
My main comment is that while delayed planting in the US and drought in Australasia could have a significant effect on food availability and prices in the coming year, in thinking about the price effects it is useful to keep in mind the historical pattern.

Based on the table and graphs below, some points worth noting are:

  • With the exception of beef the cost to the consumer of basic agricultural products today is a fraction of what it was throughout the 20th century
  • With the exception of price spikes in 2008 and 2012 the prices of basic agricultural commodities thus far in the 21st century have been relatively stable
  • Research suggests the 2008 and 2012 price spikes had more to do with government policy (e.g., mandates, subsidies, and tariffs on ethanol) and macroeconomic factors (e.g., a run up in oil prices) than weather

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