Climate change causing (another) food shock

Written By: - Date published: 12:37 pm, July 12th, 2012 - 57 comments
Categories: climate change, food - Tags:

Climate change is causing the world’s temperatures and seas levels to rise but this isn’t a steady process. Instead we see more frequent and more extreme weather events. The record-busting heatwave in the US and floods in Russia are examples. So, a few people die of heat stroke and some others drown – so what, eh? Actually, the big problem is not the direct effects of these weather events on people but what they do to our production of food and other vital goods.

It’s a little acknowledged fact that the US is the world’s largest food exporter, supplying vast quantities of grains and soy in particular to the rest of the world.

The drought and heatwave is wreaking havoc.

Production from this year’s US corn crop is set to fall by 15%. short of forecast. This will be the third year in a row that heat has damaged the US’s corn crop. Along with other droughts and the ever-increasing demand from 70 million more humans per year, are the reasons that world corn reserves are at the lowest level since 1974 (which might be the lowest level on record, the article isn’t clear), with just a 8 week buffer. Corn is the world’s primary staple food.

The US has lost its position as the world’s largest exporter of wheat, the world’s second staple food, tom France (and prices jumped 18% in the second half of June as the extent of the US drought became clear.

The world’s soy supply is in even deeper trouble. Drought in South America has seen the world’s second and third largest exporters – Brazil and Argentina – record poor harvests this year and the US, the world’s largest soy exporter, is on the same track with just 40% of the crop rated in good or excellent condition during the vital growing period. World soy production won’t meet demand this year. Soy is the world’s number 6 staple food and a major source of animal feed.

That’s one country’s extreme weather event in one year. Now multiply that around the world, and over many years, with increasing frequency.

The talk about ‘food price inflation’ or ‘food price spikes’ (that one sounds nice and temporary) misses the fundamental point: the price is going up because demand is up and supply isn’t keeping up because growing conditions are being more regularly interrupted by severe weather (not to mention soil exhaustion, water contamination etc).

The only way to solve that problem is decrease the amount of food going into some mouths, or use the food we have more efficiently (as a direct human food source, not a feedstock for animals for example) – and the way we do that in our economic system is by pricing some people out of the market.

The question is who can pay more: the farmers who buy these staples as animal feed to produce meat for western tables, or the third world poor, who buy them to eat directly. Obviously, the most efficient answer in terms of getting the most calories into human mouths is a bit different from the result the market produces.

But, this is what climate change looks like. This is what we’ve brought on ourselves. It’s not a gradual, steady increase in temperatures that don’t become ‘serious’ until runaway heating starts. It comes earlier and more unpredictably than that. It’s more extreme climate events (new research has conclusively linked individual events to climate change for the first time), leading to shocks in our climate-dependent systems, most notably food production. This leads to higher food prices, shortages, and, as we saw with the food riots in 2008 and the Arab Spring that began in many countries with protests over food prices, social unrest. With the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, we have less time to recover and rebuild our buffers each time.

The shame of is that the first major climate change related disasters, like Katrina, could have been a wake-up call before things got too bad. But our leaders ignored them, and the vested interests denied them to maintain their short-term privilege.

[PS. Other new research suggests that the biosphere is absorbing more carbon dioxide as a result of climate change than thought. It has long been known that rising levels of carbon dioxide (to a point) would promote plant growth and so would a slight rise in temperatures, and this would see more carbon sequestered in soils. But the research shows the increase is enough to offset 10% of our carbon emissions, which is a lot more than previously thought. Before the deniers going popping any corks, however, the other 90% is more than enough to wreck the climate]

[PPS. btw, you know the relatively mild and sunny winter we’re having – that’s a weather event with negative consequences too: the hydro-lake levels are at 77% of average for this time of year and inflows have been well below average all year – an industry source told me that the government would usually be talking about conservation measures with the lakes dipping below 2,000 GW/hr of storage, as they did in the last dry year – 2008 – but the government doesn’t want to talk about insecurity of supply while trying to hock off power companies]

57 comments on “Climate change causing (another) food shock”

  1. Sounds like great economic news for a country producing grass-fed meat and dairy products.

    Re the lake levels: if the average of something is 100 across all years and one year you only get 77, that doesn’t mean something terrible has happened, it means 100 is an average figure. If the average starts to go down, then you’ve got a problem…

    • McFlock 1.1

      Surely, if you have a 100-year average, and then six of the next 7 years are at 80-90% of the previous average and one year at 103% of average, then your average is falling…
      Of course, besides that it’s great economic news until the farmers get hit by extreme weather events and fuel prices become a barrier to global trade.

      • Kotahi Tane Huna 1.1.1

        This from NIWA:

        Mean rainfall: Varies around country, and with season. Increases in annual mean expected for Tasman, West Coast, Otago, Southland and Chathams; decreases in annual mean in Northland, Auckland, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.

      • Gosman 1.1.2

        Why will fuel prices become a barrier to Trade?

        • McFlock

          Oh, sorry, right – the supply of oil is unlimited. But that’s by the by because global warming doesn’t exist, if it is we’re not contributing it, and even if we are there’s nothing we as a species can do to stop it now, and even if we as a species could, the effects of what we as NZers can do will never be noticed eirther way, so really we should all move along, nothing to see here, business as usual….  / sarc

          • Gosman

            Did you mean Peak oil?

            George Monibot of the Guardian had an interesting article about that recently (see

            • Kotahi Tane Huna

              Did you believe that? Or are you just pretending? I hope for your sake it’s pretending, because it would be a real shame if you were that gullible.

              • Draco T Bastard

                It’s Gosman, he really is that gullible.

                • Populuxe1

                  Sadly true.
                  Might be time to revisit and start investing in the next generation of sailing ships and steam engines. One wonders what sort of efficiencies could be achieved with modern technology.

                  • Fortran


                    Steam engines need COAL to make them work, and stokers, like my late father, to keep the fires burning.
                    Tell that to the Greens.

                    • Populuxe1

                      Not necessarily. They could be fired with wood pellets or some chemical fuel cell.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      chemical fuel cells are not a source of energy, they are a store of energy. Big difference. Fortran is right IMO. The world is going back to coal, and in a big way.

                    • Populuxe1

                      So you charge your fuel cell from solar or wind. You should see a proctologist about that anal retention, really.

                    • Colonial Viper

                      You might think its a negligible difference in terminology, but trust me, primary energy sources are what matters in the future, and it won’t do to mistake a fuel tank (which is what a battery or fuel cell is) for fuel itself.

            • Bored

              Refuted by all, predictably I admit, but nevertheless correctly. Nicole Foss has an interesting ongoing dialogue…

            • Deano

              christ, you’re still quoting that article based on a paper by an oil executive?

              You should do 5 minutes of research. that paper has been ripped to shreds by everyone who looked at it, except for Monbiot, who said that it’s going to doom us to frying ourselves instead.

            • McFlock


            • mike e

              Goose stepper All the countries That export oil are politically stable.Yeah right.
              The Arab spring is going to turn into a nightmare as these countries will more than likely end up going back wards and will hold onto their oil because it will go up in price selling it now is stupid .Like YOu and your thinking these countries are not going to be lapdogs any more to the wealthy corporations and the western democracies.
              Peak oil or not FUElLprices are going up and up this lull in the market is just that.

              • lurgee

                Gosman, are you the same Gosman I knew from the Sensing Murder forum? The one who challenged Kelvin Kruickshank to divine your middle name – and then ended up looking a bit foolish when he managed to do just that?

                • mike e

                  +1 dreaded 1 I would have asked crookshank the winning lotto numbers if he’s that good.

                  • lurgee

                    No psychic tomfoolery involved. Gosman made some dim comment along the lines of, “If you’re so clever, what’s my middle name”. Kruikshank then indicated he knew it, and Gosman got all blustery and oh-it’s-not-too-difficult-to-find-that-out-using-google-based-on-the-information-I-gave-you-esque. Rather missing the salient point – if it was so bloody easy, why ask him in the first place. 10 cent bombast and cheap sniping was his stock in trade there, rather gave those of us on the sane, anti-psychic faction a bad name. I recall him expressing some admiration for An Rand back then, so I suspect it is the same one.

                    • Gosman

                      Ummmm…. pretty sure you made this story up. I certainly never challenged anyone with such a purile test of psychic ability. By the way what was his answer in your made up story? Should be good for a laugh at least.

                    • lurgee

                      Can’t seem to reply to Gosman’s comment below directly. Cruikshank identified the person who challenged him as ‘Nigel no mates’ and the challenger (Pretty sure it was you, might have been one of the other skeptics, there were a couple of loose cannons) admitted, after a bit of huffing and puffing, that his middle name was Nigel, but that there was nothing remarkable about that.

                      If it it wasn’t you, I apologise for the misidentification. Who was the other one who was always screaming on about challenges and offering rewards and stuff? It might have been him.

                    • lurgee

                      Cruikshank identified the person who challenged him as ‘Nigel no mates’ and the challenger (Pretty sure it was you, might have been one of the other skeptics, there were a couple of loose cannons) admitted, after a bit of huffing and puffing, that his middle name was Nigel, but that there was nothing remarkable about that.

                      If it it wasn’t you, I apologise for the misidentification. Who was the other one who was always screaming on about challenges and offering rewards and stuff? It might have been him.

                      Shortly after Gosman’s post above, someone started posted an obscene comment (or perhaps an offer of lovin’) on my blog. Surely a remarkable coincidence?

                    • Gosman

                      My middle name isn’t Nigel or anything remotely like it. Also I’m curious how he was meant to find out this detail from an internet search when I don’t advertise my name on forums generally. The other person was Ynot. He is actually a lefty so don’t think he was extolling the virtues of Ayn Rand. Quite possibly doing the opposite and you once again misinterpreted.

                    • lurgee

                      Nah, I remember Ynot. He was pretty sane. Ditto Ginarley. Must have been the other one, whose nick escapes me all together. But you do love Ayn Rand, don’t you?

                    • Gosman

                      Never met the woman.

                    • lurgee

                      That’s not precisely a denial. Was Sharman active on the SM forum, or did he just lurk in the background, pretending he was some sort of General of Scepticism, and we were his troops? He was a bit of a mad fanatic. Don’t think it was him I’m trying to recall, however. Though he was erratic enough.

            • Robert Atack

              Another one for ya
              >The many misunderstandings he relays begin with the title. There is more than enough potential oil resource below ground to create the climate disaster he refers to. Peak oil is not about that. It is about when global production falls never again to reach past levels: a disaster, if the descent hits an oil-dependent global economy years ahead of expectations. This descent depends on flow rates in oilfields, not the amount of oil left. What worries those who believe the global oil peak is imminent is the evidence that the oil industry will not be able to maintain growing flow rates for much longer.
              Posted by
              Jeremy Leggett
              Wednesday 4 July 2012 13.23 BST

              • Colonial Viper

                Yep. It doesn’t matter how much water there is left in the lake if the only way you can drink from it is through a straw.

        • Kotahi Tane Huna

          How will increased fuel prices become a barrier to trade: by increasing the end-cost of imports beyond the ability of large numbers of people to pay for them – resulting lower volumes leading to less cost efficiency, food riots causing uncertain market conditions. That sort of thing.

        • Bored

          Because…fekk I am so Bored of explaining so perhaps have a read of this fabulous fellow, says what I would except, hard as you may find it to believe, well….better.

        • Deano

          oil prices are already becoming a barrier to trade. Oil is a third of the running cost of shipping lines

          here’s a short article, I know you won’t bother to read anything longer:

          • gnomic

            Just lately I read that Maersk are tightening the screws with threats of increased freight rates – yes, the company that is inciting attacks on the wages and conditions of NZ port workers. It seems the poor devils aren’t getting big enough margins so with deep regret they are going to rack up their prices.

            Elsewhere I read that trans-oceanic freight vessels are reducing their speeds so as to cut back on fuel consumption.

        • mike e

          goose brain If you can’t figure that out I can see why you are sucked in by the neo liberal BS you spew.
          No brains no pain.
          Fuel is one of the single biggest costs on farm.
          Transport they use fuel in vast quantities to move Fertilizers(Mind you we could just use you and your right wing miopic idoit BS you lot spew would solve that problem)
          and product to market.
          Goose if that becomes to expensive people will produce product where the market is not 20,000 km away .

        • Georgecom

          Gosman. Try thinking about the cost of transporting things if the price of transporting them is rising. Think about the impact on prices of the items if the cost of transporting them rises.

          Simple mathematics.

    • NickS 1.2

      Re the lake levels: if the average of something is 100 across all years and one year you only get 77, that doesn’t mean something terrible has happened, it means 100 is an average figure. If the average starts to go down, then you’ve got a problem…


      You have failed time series statistics 101, please try again…

      aka that’s only useful for long term changes, if you want to see what’s happening in the short term you need to use time intervals which are just big enough to be statistically significant, which is derived from the amount of noise in the data set.

      • I don’t believe it takes an in-depth knowledge of time-series stats to notice the problem with concluding something terrible is happening because this number is lower than the average.

    • weka 1.3

      “Sounds like great economic news for a country producing grass-fed meat and dairy products.”

      Much of the dairy industry in NZ is dependent on palm kernel imported from Malaysia. Even in somewhere like Southland, where if you can’t grow grass fed animals there is something seriously wrong, they do this shit.

      • Jimmie 1.3.1

        Foot in Mouth with this comment I’m afraid.

        Approx 95% of feed fed to dairy/beef stock is grown on farm in NZ.

        Palm Kernal is a relatively minor input on dairy farms.

        • Colonial Viper

          Having said that, dozens of dairy farms would go under asap if it wasn’t for palm kernel and tapioca imports maintaining high production levels.

          Basically those dairy farmers have overstocked beyond the point the land can cope with even using intensive highly fertilised and highly irrigated pasture growth.

        • weka

          What CV said. This isn’t farming as we’ve known it. It’s strip mining and then exporting the fertility of the land to the nth degree. We can only hope that the dairy industry collapses sooner rather than later and leaves us some fertile land to grow actual food on once the shit hits the fan hard enough to affect NZ.

          • Colonial Viper

            Massive amounts of fertiliser poured on, mixed with added water to get the pasture growth they need.

            On farms like that the land is simply being used as a hydroponics operation. Its not even farming the land any more.

  2. Bored 2

    Cognitive dissonance? Have a read of Orlov on why the population in general even when they hear the bad news fail to respond. We are acting like rabbits in the headlights, unfortunately for us the car wont stop before peak Oil strikes….splat!

  3. Kotahi Tane Huna 3

    What a difference a year makes. May 2011:

    Global warming is likely already taking a toll on world wheat and corn production, according to a new study led by Stanford University researchers. But the United States, Canada and northern Mexico have largely escaped the trend.

  4. infused 4

    Just shut up and let it happen.

    That’s the only way it’s going to stop.

    Prove me wrong.

  5. weka 5

    Would now be an opportune moment to rethink our relationship with water in NZ?

  6. I read a fun fact the other day – photosynthesis stops working @ 40C and @ 35C it is only about 50% as ‘productive’ which is ok if the world was eating cactus, but wheat, barley, corn, and soy hmmm

    • Temperature directly affects the ability of enzymes and thus enzyme processes that take place in the leaf of a plant. In recent research, the effects of both high temperature and low temperature have similar outcomes, but these results occur via different path ways.

      High temperature affects the structure of an enzyme. Although high temperature related to activity can be beneficial, there is a point on every enzymes activity curve where activity rapidly decreases. This decrease in activity is due to the heat energy associated with high temperatures. Denaturation is the unraveling of a protein’s (all enzymes are proteins, but not all proteins are enzymes!) tertiary structure, or its double helical- three dimensional conformation. This is in its most basic sense, changing the shape of an enzyme. More over, the shape of an enzyme is its primary tool for catalyzing reactions that would otherwise be too energy consuming to process (enzymes lower the energy of activation of a particular reaction i.e. they lower the amount of energy necessary to activate a reaction). When this shape is distorted by damaging heat, the enzyme can no longer function as an effective unit in the process of photosynthesis.

      There are many enzymes that play key roles in the synthesis of carbohydrates by photosynthesis. Eliminating just one will likely halt production until conditions are once again favorable.

  7. MrSmith 7

    “you know the relatively mild and sunny winter we’re having – that’s a weather event with negative consequences too:”
    No doubt James, but as we get older we fell the cold more, so even if the winters are warmer they still fell colder and the young, well they have nothing to judge the present temperature against, like they care anyway, the look out the window diagnoses will never get us anywhere short term, until the cows start flying by the window and even then I doubt it will sink in.

  8. Georgecom 8

    Accepting many of the comments above, here is perhaps some better news. Growing food need not be a disaster waiting to happen. This series of permaculture
    is worth watching

    What could be done

  9. Kotahi Tane Huna 9

    Reaction to recent events in America, from Peter Sinclair – of “Climate Crock of the Week”.

    “We’ll adapt to that” – empty words exposed.

  10. Bill 10

    And yet again, an opinion on rising prices for food staples misses the big bloody elephant in the room. Which is simply this: that only the staples that are subject to speculative trading rise in price. (Have potatoes or sorghum prices gone through the ceiling? No.) And as for all the shit being spouted about failed Russian wheat harvests last year (as though that drove the global price of wheat up) the global wheat production was the largest it had ever been.

    Which is not to say that global warming ain’t producing weather that’s whacking harvests. Just that supply and demand isn’t driving prices. Bankers/speculators are.

    • Colonial Viper 10.1

      Well they got to dump all that freshly printed USD into some market somewhere, right? And starving poor people on the other side of the world is no problem of consequence for a London City or New York trader.

      • Paw prick 10.1.1

        What a self righteous wanker!
        How many new York or London city traders do you know?
        Do you claim to have knowledge of their colletctive conscience ?

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