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Severe Food Shortages Brewing

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Severe Food Shortages Brewing


The New York Times February 7, 2011

Severe Food Shortages Brewing

Droughts, Floods and Food


By Paul Krugman


We're in the midst of a global food crisis - the

second in three years. World food prices hit a

record in January, driven by huge increases in

the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils. These

soaring prices have had only a modest effect on

U.S. inflation, which is still low by historical

standards, but they're having a brutal impact on

the world's poor, who spend much if not most of

their income on basic foodstuffs.


The consequences of this food crisis go far

beyond economics. After all, the big question

about uprisings against corrupt and oppressive

regimes in the Middle East isn't so much why

they're happening as why they're happening now.

And there's little question that sky-high food

prices have been an important trigger for popular



So what's behind the price spike? American

right-wingers (and the Chinese) blame easy-money

policies at the Federal Reserve, with at least

one commentator declaring that there is "blood on

Bernanke's hands." Meanwhile, President Nicolas

Sarkozy of France blames speculators, accusing

them of "extortion and pillaging."


But the evidence tells a different, much more

ominous story. While several factors have

contributed to soaring food prices, what really

stands out is the extent to which severe weather

events have disrupted agricultural production.

And these severe weather events are exactly the

kind of thing we'd expect to see as rising

concentrations of greenhouse gases change our

climate - which means that the current food price

surge may be just the beginning.


Now, to some extent soaring food prices are part

of a general commodity boom: the prices of many

raw materials, running the gamut from aluminum to

zinc, have been rising rapidly since early 2009,

mainly thanks to rapid industrial growth in

emerging markets.


But the link between industrial growth and demand

is a lot clearer for, say, copper than it is for

food. Except in very poor countries, rising

incomes don't have much effect on how much people



It's true that growth in emerging nations like

China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence

rising demand for animal feed. It's also true

that agricultural raw materials, especially

cotton, compete for land and other resources with

food crops - as does the subsidized production of

ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both

economic growth and bad energy policy have played

some role in the food price surge.


Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of

other commodities until last summer. Then the

weather struck.


Consider the case of wheat, whose price has

almost doubled since the summer. The immediate

cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world

production is down sharply. The bulk of that

production decline, according to U.S. Department

of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in

the former Soviet Union. And we know what that's

about: a record heat wave and drought, which

pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for

the first time ever.


The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent

extreme weather events, from dry weather in

Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in

Australia, that have damaged world food



The question then becomes, what's behind all this extreme weather?


To some extent we're seeing the results of a

natural phenomenon, La Niña - a periodic event in

which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes

cooler than normal. And La Niña events have

historically been associated with global food

crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.


But that's not the whole story. Don't let the

snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005

for warmest year on record, even though we were

at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling

factor in the second half of the year.

Temperature records were set not just in Russia

but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a

fifth of the world's land area. And both droughts

and floods are natural consequences of a warming

world: droughts because it's hotter, floods

because warm oceans release more water vapor.


As always, you can't attribute any one weather

event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we're

seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in

general becoming much more common, is just what

you'd expect from climate change.


The usual suspects will, of course, go wild over

suggestions that global warming has something to

do with the food crisis; those who insist that

Ben Bernanke has blood on his hands tend to be

more or less the same people who insist that the

scientific consensus on climate reflects a vast

leftist conspiracy.


But the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what

we're getting now is a first taste of the

disruption, economic and political, that we'll

face in a warming world. And given our failure to

act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more,

and much worse, to come.


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