Sunday, March 13, 2011

Flood, Drought, and Food Prices, Oh my!

From Northern China's droughts...

Only days ago, the largest earthquake documented in the country rocked Japan, killing thousands of people and leaving many more without daily necessities. But this is just one of the many natural disasters that has graced the front page of newspapers in the past several months. The thing about earthquakes, is that they happen regardless of human actions (there are tectonic plates, they move); our infrastructure ultimately is what makes us more or less susceptible to the impacts. Floods and droughts, however, are directly influenced by atmospheric circulation, weather patterns, and temperature. So while urban planning and architecture fall into the earthquake preparedness category, dealing with floods and droughts fits squarely in the climate change mitigation and adaptation camp.

The latter is the subject of today's discussion. One of the consequences of climate change (or my new favorite term - "global weirding") is more variable and extreme precipitation. Severe droughts are undermining crop harvests and livestock resources in many African countries, including Kenya, Zimbambwe, and Uganda. This region will also be one of the hardest hit by climate change, projected to get drier as temperature increases in the coming years. And then the drought in China gave the world wheat market (and grain prices overall) a bit of a scare, considering China is the top wheat producing and consuming nation in the world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, too much water can be just as detrimental to food supply as too little. Floods hit Pakistan in August, devastating crops and leaving millions of people without food, shelter, or income. While Pakistan may have dominated news coverage at the start of monsoon season, countries like Benin, South Africa, and Sri Lanka followed suit. Australia even suffered first from crop losses due to drought and then floods! floods in Queensland, Australia.

While agricultural production suffers substantially from these extreme (and alarmingly more frequent) weather events, it can also mitigate the impacts. Mark Hertsgaard, author of the new book "Hot," talked with PRI a couple of years back about rural residents growing trees in Burkina Faso to reduce drought impacts on agricultural productivity. In Guyana, the choice of rice varieties and growing practices has helped temper some of the negative consequences of both floods and droughts. For both plenty and paucity, proper management can increasing water infiltration and storage capacity, taking advantage of wet periods and withstanding dry.

Though these issues may seem far away from your dinner table, realize that we no longer live in a vacuum, that the world food market is very much interconnected, and that quantity and prices in one part of the planet will affect others. Also, it is important to consider that these events are becoming more prevalent, and will continue to place stress particularly on rural and impoverished populations.

I apologize for the lack of recipe in this post, but will compensate later this week. I figured this was a timely issue that should be brought to light. My upcoming posts will try to strike a balance between these topics of note and tidbits of gustatory satisfaction.

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