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Bad news for pasta lovers: the effect of climate change on food staples

Tara Giles operates a combine as she harvests wheat on a 160-acre field located south of High River, Alberta, September 28, 2013. Alberta farmers have completed 71 percent of the harvest, the government of the Western Canadian province said on Friday in its most recent crop report as of September 24. The harvest completion by crop: spring wheat 76 percent; durum 84 percent; barley 74 percent; canola 60 percent. REUTERS/Mike Sturk (CANADA - Tags: AGRICULTURE BUSINESS COMMODITIES FOOD TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E99T0VNI01

Tara Giles operates a combine as she harvests wheat south of High River, Alberta, September 28, 2013. Image: REUTERS/Mike Sturk (CANADA - Tags: AGRICULTURE BUSINESS COMMODITIES FOOD TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E99T0VNI01

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • A new report warns that climate change may sharply reduce yields of staple crops by 2050.
  • One food item already impacted by the worsening crisis is pasta.
  • The pandemic may help people understand the severity of the issue.

Domesticated maize has been shaping civilization for about 9,000 years, and still provides a big portion of the developing world’s calories. By the 2040s, though, the odds that the four countries producing nearly all global maize exports will simultaneously lose more than 10% of their crop may be the same as guessing the flip of a coin.

That’s according to a Chatham House report published last week, detailing the potential impact of failing to drastically reduce global emissions. Yields of staple crops could ultimately decline by nearly a third by the year 2050, according to the report, if governments don’t ramp up commitments made under the Paris Agreement.

Among the staples already being affected by extreme weather attributed to climate change: the durum wheat needed to produce much of the world’s pasta.

The 50% price increase for a packet of spaghetti predicted in some places as a result of the depleted global wheat harvest is a small but meaningful reminder that a warming climate can literally take the food out of our mouths.

In Canada, the world’s biggest exporter of durum wheat, record temperatures this past summer and pervasive drought attributed to climate change reduced the country's anticipated production for this year to about 3.5 million metric tonnes, a nearly 50% decline from last year. European producers were meanwhile deluged by record rainfall chalked up to warming temperatures.

Durum wheat is far from the only staple being impacted by the climate crisis. Coffee is likely to become more expensive and lower-quality as a result, for example, about 70,000 farms in California, the biggest food producer in the US, are operating on drastically-reduced water rations, and the Paraná River in South America, a vital means of transporting grains, recently hit a 77-year low.

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In many ways, the heavy impact of climate change on the global food supply chain has been made even heavier by COVID-19.

The results of that heavier impact have surfaced in diverse and unnerving ways – ketchup packets suddenly fell into such short supply that new production lines had to be built, flour supplies fell victim to a surge in home baking, and it suddenly got a lot harder to feed children in schools.

Last year, according to the UN, global hunger surged as the pandemic disrupted supply chains and inflated food prices. Nearly 10% of the global population was undernourished, the UN reported, and nearly a third didn’t consistently have access to the food they need on a daily basis.

Modern supply chains are generally built for efficiency. But they’re also not often designed to withstand the unpredictability wrought by a sudden disaster.

Recently, a record number of cargo ships were forced to idle at one time near southern California’s busy ports due to pandemic-related disruptions, and dry bulk carrier congestion has hit historic levels in China.

Climate change has been far from sudden, of course. Alarm bells have been ringing for many years, though experts say responses have generally been lacking.

In some ways, the pandemic may actually be helpful in this regard. For one thing, the temporary roadblocks it’s erected in the global food supply chain seem to have woken many people up to the fact that climate change can do the same sort of thing, albeit on a more permanent basis.

The issue of climate impact on agricultural yields has been a topic of discussion during the Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, which is happening this week. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, for example, noted that the production of many crops in his country has declined following decades of upward progress.


For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • A different type of Christmas list – here are three things that, according to this piece, could help save the holiday from shortages in the UK. One is “buying local.” (The Conversation)
  • “None of these people in the south have contributed to the climate crisis.” More than a million people in southern Madagascar face dire famine conditions, according to this piece, and things may get worse as the climate warms. (Yale Climate Connections)
  • Last month, officials declared a water shortage for the Colorado River for the first time ever, and according to this piece California farmers are now living in a drought-impacted future they thought was still a couple of decades away. (GreenBiz)
  • In 2014 global hunger started increasing after having declined for decades, according to this piece, and in Africa the prolonged impacts of drought on food insecurity have been dramatically worsened by violent conflict. (Eos)
  • Coastal communities are often among the most vulnerable to climate change, according to this piece, which spotlights research suggesting that the aquatic food systems most at risk as a result are in Africa, south and southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific. (Nature)
  • This column finds that advanced economies are impacted to a surprising degree by global food commodity price shifts caused by weather shocks – which suggests that they face more severe potential consequences from climate change than previously thought. (VoxEU)
  • Scientists generally agree that climate change is having a profound impact on agricultural production, but estimates of that impact vary widely. These two agricultural economists propose a “more accurate and place-specific” approach to related data analysis. (Science Daily)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, the Future of Food, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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