Summer of extreme weather ‘threatens global food supplies’, scientists warn

Flash flooding from the heavy rains has washed away villages and crops in Pakistan.   (AP)
Flash flooding from the heavy rains has washed away villages and crops in Pakistan. (AP)

Extreme weather this summer has slashed harvest forecasts, with experts warning that it could exacerbate the global food crisis.

In a written briefing, an international group of experts warned that climate-driven extremes, such as heatwaves, flooding and drought, further threaten global food supplies already impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The situation also offers an insight into what the future might hold, as they warn climate breakdown could lead to simultaneous international food supply failures, something they say we may even see this year.

“Climate change is a major threat to our food systems,” said Zia Mehrabi, assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder. said in the briefing. “We know that extreme events will get worse in the future and we’ll see them happening across multiple regions at the same time.”

This summer in the northern hemisphere saw drought and heatwaves damage crops in some of the most important food-producing regions in the world. Scientists have said the climate crisis played a role in most of the events - heatwaves for example are becoming longer, hotter, and more frequent due to the climate emergency.

In the US, more than 60 per cent of the west, southwest, and central plains are in severe drought, with the corn harvest expected to be the smallest nationally in three years - failing to make up for the grain shortages caused by the war in Ukraine.

In Europe, a drought that has been described as the worst in 500 years risks smaller harvests and farmers in the UK have warned that low water supplies could have long-lasting effects that threaten to hit harvests next year - pushing up the price of beef, lamb, wheat and other crops.

In China, drought is also threatening crops, while heatwaves in India starting in March reduced yields. The ongoing floods in Pakistan are also expected to also hit food production, including the rice harvest.

Climate scientists have assessed that as the planet gets warmer due to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the risk of extreme weather happening at the same time in global food-producing regions will also increase.

These are known as “multi-breadbasket failures” and those most at risk will be the poorest regions, with an increased risk of famine and food insecurity, according to the briefing.

A combine harvests wheat in fields near Lyminge, England in August. (Getty Images)
A combine harvests wheat in fields near Lyminge, England in August. (Getty Images)

Climate change is already an important driver in the increase in global hunger, according to Gernot Laganda, director of climate at the United Nations World Food Programme. He said some 345 million people were facing acute food insecurity – an increase from 135 million since 2019.

“Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis are struggling to cope with extreme weather events, which are following each other at increasing speed,” he said, pointing to the drought in the Horn of Africa that he said was pushing more than 20 million people into emergency levels of hunger.

Mr Laganda said 80 per cent of the global population depends on only three staple crops - maize, wheat and rice - and a very small number of countries control the bulk of these stocks.

“We keep buying into a system of fewer crop varieties that are produced and transported with a high carbon footprint and costs to the environment, rather than capitalizing on the genetic diversity that is still available in many countries and that could help us make our food systems more resilient to external shocks and stresses,” he added.