Food security wanes as world warms

Global warming may have begun outpacing ability of farmers to adapt

Since summer, signs of severe food insecurity — droughts, food riots, five- to tenfold increases in produce costs — have erupted around the globe. Several new reports now argue that regionally catastrophic crop failures — largely due to heat stress — are signals that global warming may have begun outpacing the ability of farmers to adapt.

Some one billion people already suffer serious malnutrition. That number could mushroom, the new reports argue, if governments big and small don’t begin heeding warning signs like spikes in the price of food staples.

Severe summer droughts in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan ravaged 2010 cereal yields. When Russia, the fourth largest wheat exporter, imposed an export ban in August, international markets responded with price spikes. Having sold around 17 million metric tons on world markets in 2009, Russia’s 2010 wheat exports are expected to fall closer to 4 million metric tons, according to a November Food Outlook report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO. (Russia’s export ban is slated to remain in effect until next July.)

Overall, FAO reports, food imports by the world’s poorest nations are expected to cost 11 percent more in 2010 than a year earlier — and 20 percent more for some low-income food-importing countries. FAO predicts the total cost of 2010 food imports will be roughly $1 trillion — a near-record level. Contributing to the problem is a 2 percent drop in global cereal yields; earlier this year 2010 cereal production had been expected to post a 1 percent gain.

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