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Climate Comes for Food Prices

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at how climate impacts are driving up the cost of food.
Julian Moore
Sep 5, 2023 9 min read
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One persistent obstacle to climate action is that, on a day to day basis, its impacts can be hard to perceive. Most people live far away from rapidly melting glaciers, and even the obvious signs, like unseasonable winter heat in Europe, are often met with rejoice and beach blankets.

But one critical climate impact is making itself known across the world as the extreme weather events are increasingly causing problems for food supplies around the world.

Speciality Crops Take a Hit

Erratic weather is taking its toll on specialty crops first.

Take the case of Spain, where a grinding drought has cut olive production in half from 2022 and sent olive oil prices to an unheard-of 10 euros per liter.

Olive oil is a staple food item in Spain and is typically in such high abundance that cities like Madrid and Barcelona have established hundreds of recycling points for household oil to keep it from polluting water sources and clogging pipes.

Spanish consumers have reacted to the price shock by reducing consumption, or, in some cases, taking what they can’t afford. You wouldn’t typically expect to find olive oil next to liquor and condoms in a supermarket, but rising costs have forced some shop owners to put olive oil under lock and key to prevent shoplifting of the key ingredient to the Mediterranean diet.

Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight for the drought in Spain, and olive oil prices will likely continue to increase across the world as the world’s biggest exporter grapples with climate impacts.  

Low Staple Stocks

Global staples like wheat and rice haven’t been spared from price spikes associated with climate impacts, either.

India is the world’s largest rice exporter, and tenth-largest wheat exporter, but over the past two years, months-long heatwaves and extended droughts have reduced yields of both, driving up costs world-wide.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research measured the impact of a 2022 heatwave that stretched from April to May and found that nine Indian states saw hits to agricultural output across the board. Temperatures exceeding 46 degrees Celsius diminished dairy yields by 15% due to calf mortality and skin infections, while egg production dipped 10% during the same period.

But wheat and rice, which make up more than half of the foodstock of some neighboring Asian countries, took the brunt of the damage. Soaring temperatures withered 34% of the crop in Uttar Pradesh, where the heat coincided with the filling and development stage when wheat grains are most vulnerable to harsh conditions.

There is never a good time for food shortages, but there may be none worse than an election year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is up for re-election this year, and since high food prices are a tough sell to voters, the Modi government has progressively restricted international sales to fight rising prices at home. Earlier this year, India imposed an export tax of 20% on par-boiled rice, which is favored by restaurants for fast cooking, and banned exporting some varieties altogether.

The chain reaction of climate impacts to market shortages to policy decisions has so far pushed the global price of rice to its highest point in 15 years. Even if delayed monsoon rains ultimately bail out the 2023 crop, the events of the past two years have laid bare how climate impacts could quickly ping around the globe to threaten the world’s food supply for years to come.

Invasive Species

Climate change is also influencing food prices by creating hospitable conditions for invasive species to wreak havoc across the globe.

A changing climate means that certain plants and organisms can survive in a range far beyond their natural habitat. With the help of ever-increasing human travel, these species are having a growing impact on food prices in some of the world’s most food-insecure regions.

One such species is lantana camara, a flowery shrub native to South America that has been a fixture in European gardens since it was introduced by Dutch colonizers, who then spread it around the world.  

A report from earlier this year found that the cost of invasive species to African agriculture surpassed $65 billion, with lantana camara counting among the top agricultural disruptors. Most of those losses came from the costs associated with managing the removal of invasive species, although interlopers like lantana also compete directly with crops and livestock feed to the tune of $29 billion.
Ironically, one climate model showed that while the overall hospitable zone for lantana may decrease in future scenarios, changing conditions could allow it to thrive in Australia, Europe and North America. Without many predators or established practices for removing it at agricultural scale, lantana could run rampant in its new home and impact agricultural yields in areas beyond where it is already increasing food prices.

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The Author

Julian Moore