Record temperatures shrinking world grain harvest

Posted: 19 September 2003

Author: Lester R. Brown

On August 12 at 8:30am, the US Department of Agriculture released its monthly estimate of the world grain harvest, reporting a 32-million-ton drop from the July estimate. When grain futures markets opened later in the morning, prices of wheat, rice, and corn jumped.

This 32-million-ton drop, equal to half the US wheat harvest, was concentrated in Europe where record-high temperatures have withered crops. The affected region stretched from the United Kingdom and France in the west through the Ukraine in the east. The searing heat damaged crops in virtually every country in Europe.

Europe's heatwave

The soaring temperatures of the past several weeks rewrote the record book. On August 10, the temperature in London reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)-the first triple-digit reading on record in the United Kingdom. France had 11 consecutive days in August with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). In Italy, temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).

The heat wave in Europe started in early summer when Switzerland, situated in the heart of Europe, experienced the hottest June since recordkeeping began 140 years ago. In July the heat wave spread across the rest of Europe.

Crops suffered the most in Eastern Europe, which is harvesting its smallest wheat crop in 30 years. In the Ukraine, the wheat crop, already severely damaged by winter kill, was reduced further by the heat, plummeting from 21 million tons last year to 5 million tons this year. As a result, the Ukraine, a leading wheat exporter last year, has been forced to import wheat as bread prices threaten to spiral out of control. Romania, which was particularly hard hit by heat and drought, is expecting to harvest the smallest wheat crop on record. The Czech Republic is expecting its poorest grain harvest in 25 years.

The prolonged heat wave, which persisted through mid August, also reduced the German grain harvest. The German Farmers Union reports that in southeastern Germany some farmers may lose half of their grain crop.

Global grain shortfall

This reduced estimate of the world grain harvest will expand the world grain shortfall this year to 82 million tons. With projected world grain consumption of 1,912 million tons exceeding production of 1,830 million tons by 4 per cent, the world is engaged in a massive drawdown of grain stocks. (See data.) With this year's drawdown, world grain stocks have dropped to the lowest level since the early 1970s. When world grain stocks dropped to a dangerously low level in 1973, world prices of wheat and rice doubled.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels climb higher each year in an unbroken ascent, they are creating a greenhouse effect, raising the earth's temperature. Over the last quarter century the earth's average temperature has risen 0.7 degrees Celsius or more than 1 degree Fahrenheit.

Renewable energy solution

As temperatures rise, crop-withering heat waves are becoming more and more common. Last year the grain harvests in India and the United States were hit hard by high temperatures and drought. This year Europe is bearing the brunt.

During this life-threatening heat wave Europeans may have felt that the temperature could not rise much higher, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of some 1,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, is projecting a rise in average global temperature of somewhere between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius) during this century if we continue with business-as-usual energy policies.

Even if the earth's temperature increases only a few degrees, as in the low end of the IPCC projections, we will likely see heat waves far more intense than anything we can easily imagine. If rising temperatures shrink harvests and drive up food prices, consumer pressure to reduce the use of fossil fuels will intensify. Indeed, rising food prices could be the first global economic indicator to signal the need for a fundamental shift in energy policy, one that would move the world toward renewable energy sources and away from climate-disrupting fossil fuels.

Lester R. Brown is founder and President of Earth Policy Institute and author of numerous books, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth. In 1974, he founded Worldwatch Institute, of which he was President for its first 26 years.

Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute. Reproduced with kind permission.

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