Record-Setting Droughts in China Could Send Food Prices Even Higher

Record-Setting Droughts in China Could Send Food Prices Even Higher

China's parched earth has far-reaching impacts

Both the United Nations and China’s government are sounding the alarm as Shangdong province is facing its worst drought in over sixty years. Shangdong province is of central importance because it is the center of wheat production in China, which is also the world’s top wheat producer. Water shortages and crop damage has also been felt in China’s Western, Northern and Central regions. The consequences of continued drought could continue to drive up global grain prices, with myriad effects on both the developing and developed world.

In China the effects are being felt by an estimated 2.6 million people and an additional 2.8 million livestock. Beijing is also feeling the strain, as it has not received rain in over three months. Urban areas like Beijing are one factor in the water shortage for agriculture, as the concentrated population’s demand for water for domestic and industrial use draws away water supplies for farming. The scope of the drought’s effects on crop land are staggering, as at least 5.6 million hectares have been affected, which make up two thirds of the country’s wheat crop.

Despite recent snowfalls, the Ministry of Agriculture reports that the situation has not improved. Desperation has led to meteorologists and the Chinese military attempting to seed clouds in order to encourage precipitation. The government has announced that it will start releasing some of its grain reserves in order to reduce strain on the market, and has pledged more than 1 billion dollars worth of emergency water aid to farmers. Follwing Prime Minister Wen Jibao’s call for increased investment in drought-mitigating technologies, China’s officials have initiated water desalinization projects, well digging, and irrigation improvements. However, some of the help may have come too late.

According to Robert S. Zeigler, the director of the International Rice Research Institute, “China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world. If they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets.” Higher food prices are especially problematic for developing countries, many of which import food and are already struggling to feed their people. The current high food prices are even said to have contributed to the political and social unrest recently seen in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Global wheat prices increased by 76% in the last year, partly because of rising demand and climate impacts on Canadian production, as well as Australian flooding, European and Russian dry spells. Growth in global demand for grain has been driven by several factors, including population growth, increasing affluence, and the use of grain to fuel automobiles.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute argues in reference to food prices that “we can no longer expect that things will soon return to normal, because in a world with a rapidly changing climate system there is no norm to return to.”
Despite this grim prognosis, governments can and must act in concert to avert catastrophe by aiming for more sustainable agricultural practices and by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone has to eat, after all.

Image courtesy of Mundoo