Climate Change: The Unseen Force Behind Rising Food Prices?

Grocery Store
Climate change may be behind the recent rise in food prices.
Photo by What Rhymes With Nicole via Flickr

That sneaking suspicion you get every time you arrive at the grocery checkout counter is right: food generally costs more than it did just 12 months ago. According to a recent statement presented to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, the Consumer Price Index, a measure of average prices for household and consumer goods, is projected to rise from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent by year’s end. Prices are expected to remain high as global food production struggles to keep pace with the rising demand for commodities such as wheat and corn.

While governments and consumers decry the steady increase in food prices, groups like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are taking a harder look at some of the factors contributing to this rise—including the role of climate change. Changing climatic conditions, in particular the decline in water availability, are forcing farmers to continually adapt their agricultural production. According to the FAO, climate change has both environmental and socioeconomic outcomes for agriculture: changes in the availability and quality of land, soil, and water resources, for example, are later reflected in crop performance, which causes prices to rise.

Climate change has been attributed to greater inconsistencies in agricultural conditions, ranging from more-erratic flood and drought cycles to longer growing seasons in typically colder climates. While the increase in Earth’s temperature is making some places wetter, it is also drying out already arid farming regions close to the Equator. This year’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report states that “increases in the frequency of droughts and floods are projected to affect local production negatively, especially in subsistence sectors at low latitudes.” The decline in production in the face of growing demand can drive up prices in markets that may lack the technology to fight environmental hazards to overall production.

Such has been the case in Australia, where the once-fruitful food-production regions of New South Wales have been subject to a severe drought for the last five years. There is evidence of shifting rainfall patterns in the region, and a growing number of Australians now view this as a repercussion of climate change. The crop failures, economic hardship in rural communities, and subsequent jump in food prices are forcing the country to reassess its approach to climate change and to consider increasing food imports, a move that would drive prices up further. Speaking on the issue last year, Mike Rann, the premier of South Australia, remarked, “what we’re seeing with this drought is a frightening glimpse of the future with global warming.”

By FAO estimates, the developing world will spend $52 billion between 2007 and 2008 on imports of wheat, corn, and other cereal crops. If current trends persist, these countries will also be worst affected by climate change’s pressure on food production and pricing, while experiencing the effects of more varied and more severe environmental conditions. Advances in technology make it unlikely that overall world food production will decline due to climate change, but agricultural capacity in large parts of Africa and Asia is expected to shift dramatically. Climate-related changes in agricultural conditions will likely only increase developing countries’ dependence on imported food, a pricey prospect considering rising global transportation costs.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

That sneaking suspicion you get every time you arrive at the grocery checkout counter is right: food generally costs more than it did just 12 months ago.