Is a global food crisis the new normal?

From Indian rice to Australian wheat, climate change is hitting yields, adding to food shortages and price spikes caused by the war in Ukraine. But there’s a way around it, analysts say.

Big Question food crisis
[Nataliia Shulga/Al Jazeera]

When India halted the exports of non-basmati white rice in late July to control soaring prices domestically and ensure its local availability, the country had an explanation ready.

The ban, coming from the world’s largest rice exporter, was always going to send panic waves across the global markets as dozens of countries, especially in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, depend on Indian rice.

But India said its hand was forced by “high international prices due to geo-political scenario[s], El Nino sentiments and extreme climatic conditions in other rice producing countries”. The export ban affects one-fourth of the country’s rice exports.

Coming soon after Russia walked out of the Black Sea grain deal amid its continuing war in Ukraine, the curbs on India’s exports threaten to trigger a broader food crisis.

Yet, the ban raises deeper questions. Unusual weather patterns, geopolitical tensions and low yields due to climate-related factors are colliding with increasing frequency, leading to spiralling prices and mounting prospects of hunger.

A searing heat wave in 2022 crushed India’s wheat production: New Delhi imposed a ban on exports that the world’s second-largest wheat producer still has not lifted more than a year later. This is also the second year in a row that India has restricted rice exports.

Argentina, the planet’s biggest soy exporter and a top corn producer, has been suffering from its worst drought in 60 years, leading to sharp cuts in yields.

Indonesia, the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, banned its exports briefly last year amid rising prices, triggering a global scramble for edible oils, especially with Ukraine’s supplies of sunflower oil also disrupted because of the war.

Brazil, a major producer of soy oil, has also suffered from droughts in recent years, while 2021 brought Canada’s lowest yield of canola oil in 14 years.

So, is a perpetual food crisis the new normal? And what can the world do about it?

The short answer: A confluence of extreme weather conditions, export curbs and geopolitical fissures could place the planet’s food security at perpetual risk. However, experts say there is a solution. Allowing free trade and using better varieties of crops that can withstand climate change better can help mitigate future crises.

A woman carries a bag of rice from a store in Quezon city, Philippines, on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. Countries worldwide are scrambling to secure rice after a partial ban on exports by India cut supplies by roughly a fifth. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
A woman carries a bag of rice from a store in Quezon City, Philippines, on Monday, August 14, 2023. Countries worldwide are scrambling to secure rice after a partial ban on exports by India [Aaron Favila/AP Photo]

Growing export curbs

Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population and more than 500 million metric tonnes are consumed every year. India accounts for 40 percent of global rice exports, with other key players being Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and the United States.

The variety of rice – non-parboiled, non-basmati – whose exports have been banned by India formed about 10 percent of the global market in the last two years, Shirley Mustafa, a rice market analyst at the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told Al Jazeera.

This rice “is destined to very specific regions, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal and Bangladesh,” she said. “Recently, African buyers have emerged as leaders in buying this type of rice, including Cameroon, Madagascar and Côte d’Ivoire.”

But India has also introduced a 20 percent export tax for parboiled rice, in effect enforcing restrictions on all non-basmati rice – 80 percent of the country’s total rice exports.

Such export restrictions destabilise the markets, Mustafa said. They lead to a price rise globally, particularly affecting poor countries who look to buy more rice fearing a supply crunch.

To understand the demand for rice, consider what India did last year. In September 2022, India tried to discourage international buying of non-basmati white rice through a tariff to ensure adequate domestic supplies. But the strategy failed. Despite the tax, the export of this variety of rice from India grew by 25 percent between September and March compared with the previous year.

Now, with India banning the export of some rice altogether, global prices have soared further. Rice prices reached their highest levels in July since September 2011, according to the FAO’s All Rice Price Index.

“The price for Thai white rice, which is seen as the benchmark price for rice, went up by about 14 percent since India’s announcement,” Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, told Al Jazeera.

But India is not the only country with export-curbing measures in place. In total, 20 countries have imposed export restrictions on major food commodities, according to the World Bank’s latest food security update, in July 2023. Afghanistan has banned the export of wheat, Bangladesh of rice and Cameroon of vegetable oil and cereals, while countries such as Russia and Uganda have imposed export taxes on some products like sunflower oil, wheat, barley, maize and rice.

These trade-restricting policies have particularly surged since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

FILE - A family sit on a rock in front of a cargo ship anchors in the Marmara Sea awaits to access to cross the Bosphorus Straits in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 13, 2022. Shipping companies are not rushing to export millions of tons of trapped grain out of Ukraine, despite a breakthrough deal to provide safe corridors through the Black Sea. That is because the waters are mined, ship owners are still assessing the risks and many still have questions over how the deal will unfold. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)
A family sits on a rock as a cargo ship waits to cross the Bosphorus Straits in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 13, 2022. The Black Sea grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to export grain despite Russia’s invasion, collapsed after Moscow withdrew from the agreement in July [Khalil Hamra/AP Photo/File]

‘Increasing hunger’

Prices of food staples like wheat, maize, rice and oil seeds have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted global supply chains, after years of relatively stable costs, Matin Qaim, a professor of food and agricultural economics at Germany’s University of Bonn, told Al Jazeera.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine made things worse, with global food prices at an all-time peak in March 2022, according to the FAO’s index. “We had not seen such increases since 2007-08 and 2011,” Qaim said.

Before the war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for 34 percent of global exports of wheat, 27 percent of barley, 17 percent of maize and 55 percent of sunflower oil. Some regions in particular had a high dependency on imports from these two countries. North Africa and the Middle East received 50 percent of their cereal supplies from Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s military blockade of the Black Sea port brought Ukrainian exports to a near-halt between March and July 2022 before the United Nations and Turkey brokered a landmark deal with Kyiv and Moscow to resume exports. More than 32 million metric tonnes of corn, wheat and other grains were exported by Ukraine between July 2022 and July 2023.

But on July 17, Russia decided to not renew the initiative, potentially hitting Ukraine’s planned grain exports of 45 million tonnes by half.

“I am concerned that some of the progress we have been making [in terms of food security] in the last two decades has come to a halt,” Qaim said. “We are now rather seeing increasing hunger numbers and this threatens to impact the sustainable development goal of ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.”

About 9.2 percent of the world’s population – between 691 million and 783 million people – faced hunger in 2022, significantly higher than 7.9 percent in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to the FAO’s 2023 State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World report.

Amplifying that food crisis is a phenomenon playing out in the form of wildfires in Canada and Europe, drought in South America and East Africa, and floods in China and arid parts of California – climate change.

Agronomist engineer Guillermo Lionel Cuitino holds a plant of soybean ruined by the drought in Pergamino, Argentina, Monday, March 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Agronomist engineer Guillermo Lionel Cuitino holds a plant of soybean ruined by the drought in Pergamino, Argentina, March 20, 2023 [Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo/File]

Too hot, too dry, too wet

As devastating floods swept across large parts of Pakistan in 2022, water swamped farmlands the size of the Czech Republic, damaging more than 80 percent of the country’s crops and pushing it into a food crisis.

At the other end of the extreme weather phenomena the world is confronting with increasing regularity are Argentina and Spain, which have faced unprecedented droughts in 2023.

Now, Australia is reportedly bracing for a dramatic 34 percent decline in its wheat yield this year, with the world’s fourth-largest exporter of the grain expecting arid El Niño conditions. Heat is also affecting the US corn yield as well as wheat production in Europe and Canada, according to the New York-based artificial intelligence-related agro-industry analysis firm Gro Intelligence.

Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, Haiti, Chile and Bolivia are also expected to see lower crop yields due to the unfavourable weather conditions this year.

To be sure, declines in production in one part of the world can, in theory, often be compensated by bumper yields in other countries.

“Weather extremes do impact crop production but the impact is not symmetrical across the globe at the same time,” Bharat Ramaswami, a professor of economics at Ashoka University in the New Delhi suburb of Sonepat, told Al Jazeera. “The global food supply does not change much in the unaffected part of the world. A global food system can manage such shortages given there is enough cooperation between countries and we allow food to move freely.”

While drought conditions led to lower wheat and maize yields in the US and in some Asian countries in 2021 and 2022, for instance, Australia reported bumper wheat outputs in those years.

Yet, the free movement of food supplies Ramaswani advocates is today under stress because of export controls and geopolitical tensions. And the science is clear: In the long run, rising temperatures will lead to a decline in the yields of the most consumed crops, like rice, wheat, maize and soybean.

Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of New York-based fine-casual food chain Teranga, cooks fonio, a variety of millet in El Cerrito, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. “Fonio is nicknamed the Lazy Farmers crop. That’s how easy it is to grow," Thiam said. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)
Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of New York-based fine-casual food chain Teranga, cooks fonio, a variety of millet in El Cerrito, California, January 27, 2023. Climate-resistant millets like fonio could be the future of food, some analysts believe [Haven Daley/AP Photo/File]

What’s needed

Both those challenges – export controls and declining yields – can be addressed, according to analysts. What is needed is a global strategy.

Ramaswami said global food stocks have remained at similar levels for the past few years and the FAO’s latest forecasts, in June 2023, have actually shown a rise in production and stocks for basic agricultural commodities.

“A coordinated action is required by exporters to reassure especially the poor countries that we will not shut off supplies arbitrarily and that their interests will not be sacrificed,” he said. “This will restore faith in the global trading system since world trade is vulnerable to political risks and perceptions.”

At the same time, Qaim said that crop production systems must be improved and countries must use better and more resilient seeds, focusing on crops that are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. This, in turn, means that countries need to invest more in research and technology in agriculture.

“With the right steps in the medium and longer term, the looming food crisis can be avoided,” Qaim said.

Traditional climate-smart crops, which can withstand extreme temperatures, are slowly making a comeback. Millets, once a staple in Africa and many parts of Asia, have seen an increase in exports in recent years. The UN has designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets, with a slew of promotional activities aimed at highlighting the nutritional (they are rich in protein and micronutrients) and climate-friendly characteristics of these ancient grains.

Meanwhile, scientists are developing drought-tolerant varieties of rice, wheat, maize and other important crops. None of these will replace the grain varieties currently used widely around the world any time soon, yet they offer a potential, long-term solution.

It is a race against time – and growing hunger.

Source: Al Jazeera