Persistent and wide-spread drought is likely to spawn a worldwide food crisis if global warming induced drought conditions don’t let up soon, the UN warned in a statement this week.
US agriculture saw its lowest yields in 50 years due to an ongoing and historic drought still impacting 64% of the contiguous US. The result is that the US is now consuming more than it produces and since the US is a major food exporter, this condition is contributing to increasingly tight food supplies worldwide. In addition, an ongoing drought in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan is resulting in the loss of 25% of the wheat crop there. This region supplies a full quarter of the world’s wheat so the combined US and Euro-Asian droughts have resulted in severe impacts to world food security.
Overall, world food consumption has surpassed production for the 6th time in 11 years. The result has been a gradual eroding of world food storage from an average of 107 days forward demand ten years ago to 74 days forward demand now. The downward spiral of food reserves has resulted in a very tenuous situation. According to UN Food and Agriculture Senior Economist Abdolreza Abbassian, there is “no room for unexpected events next year.”
Yet unexpected events continue apace. The US drought is still ongoing and poses a major threat to US winter wheat production. Drought in Euro-Asia appears to be ongoing as well. In Texas, farmers and ranchers remain wary of rebuilding in the face of an ongoing drought this year and following a devastating drought last year. Meanwhile, long-term climate models point to global warming resulting in expanding drought zones over many of the world’s most productive regions.
In general, the world’s nations and leaders are sleep walking into a major and ongoing food crisis that will likely worsen in coming years. The conditions for global warming induced drought firmly established themselves over the past decade and are now growing more and more extreme. It becomes more and more likely, as the world heats up, that each year to follow will result in drought. It also becomes more likely that these years will exhibit very extreme, far outside the norm, drought conditions that have devastating impacts to regions, nations and the world.
Furthermore, ocean food production is also being severely impacted. Fisheries are under stress, the size of fish is falling and a combination of factors including ocean heating, ocean acidification and agricultural run-off is devastating the world’s most productive oceanic zones. A third of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited resulting in falling production, another half are at the limit at which they can be produced sustainably. Fully forty percent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed or degraded. Vital mangrove forests, critical nurseries to many species of fish, have lost 35% of their previous coverage. Lastly, 400 dead zones have appeared in the world’s productive coastal waters. These dead zones provide no means to support ocean life and result in mass fish kills each year.
A new report published by the United Nations, entitled Avoiding Future Famines grimly notes that the ecological basis for human agriculture and food production is rapidly eroding. “The environment has been more of an afterthought in the debate about food security” says Prof Joe Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the United Nations Environment Programme – which has produced the report together with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and Washington’s World Resources Institute. “This is the first time that the scientific community has given us a complete picture of how the ecological basis of the food system is not only shaky but being really undermined”. The Telegraph
As falling world food supplies show, a growing environmental and climate crisis is at hand. It is a crisis that will not let up anytime soon. And it is a crisis that continues to be made worse by our burning of fossil fuels. Cessation and scaling back of fossil fuel burning is necessary to prevent a persistent, ongoing and increasingly severe world food crisis. In addition, numerous responses including increased food storage during years of plenty, increased land management practices to mitigate and reduce the effects of drought, protection of vital fisheries, mangroves, and healthy ocean environments, increased use of drought-hardy food varieties, and various activities to aid in increasing the productivity of shrinking agricultural bases will be necessary to address the world’s ongoing and likely to worsen food crisis.
All that said, it will become less and less possible to adapt to what is a persistent and growing crisis if the issue of the world’s carbon emissions is not addressed. Again, as noted above, the world’s political and industrial leaders are sleep walking into a crisis of their own making. And that crisis, sadly, appears to be growing worse by the year.