Food security, food prices and climate variability
High food prices are a concern for all families, but are particularly difficult for the poor who struggle to purchase enough food for their daily needs even when prices are low. For farming families, food prices affect household income as well as expenditures, since they grow food for sale as well as for their own consumption. Weather-related production variability is also a source of income uncertainty for farmers, and when food prices are high and production fails, these households will have particular difficulties obtaining enough food for three meals a day. In this book, the inter-relationships among food prices, food security and the variability of food production due to climate and weather are examined. The Earth observation data record from satellites is now three decades long, providing robust, spatially explicit, high quality datasets that can be used to determine growing conditions across continents. Droughts, floods or other extreme weather events that affect agricultural yield and ultimately food production can be observed using satellite remote sensing data. Remote sensing uses instruments mounted on satellites or in planes to produce images or scenes of the Earth’s surface, and is part of a suite of tools that provide up-to-date and quantitative information about land conditions to decision makers. These datasets serve as the basis for understanding trends and extremes of weather that impact the availability of food over large areas. Climate variability can be quantified by satellite data and used to estimate the likely impact on agricultural and economic systems. Unusually or prohibitively high local food prices are a primary cause of food insecurity in the world. Information on food prices can enable diagnosis of market functioning, weatherrelated production shortfalls, and changes in accessibility of food across wide areas. These are all warnings of food security problems that policy makers should respond to, but may not be visible through other sources of information due to the complexity of the food system. Integrating climate-related shocks into food price analysis should be a new source of information for policy makers in their efforts to protect the most vulnerable from food security threats. Climate variability is defined as seasonal, annual, interannual or several years-long variations in temperature and precipitation around an average condition defined over several
decades. Climate variability can affect agricultural growing conditions both positively and negatively. As our climate changes, farmers will experience increased variability, with a heightened risk of both floods and droughts (Wetherald and Manabe, 2002; IPCC, 2007). Both positive and negative extreme events may affect agricultural production and therefore food security. Large-scale reductions in rainfall and food production across semi-arid regions of Africa were a proximate driver of the extreme food security crises of the 1970s and 1980s (von Braun et al., 1998). Dramatic increases in food production over short periods without simultaneous improvements in transportation or market outlets may cause wholesale drops in food prices and rotting of excess grain in storage facilities, causing reductions in the income of small farmers (Sharma, 2013). Without anticipation of climate extremes, poor planning and inadequate policy response by governments in developing countries could exacerbate household food insecurity over large areas. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” (UN, 1996). Four conditions must be fulfilled simultaneously to ensure food security: food must be available, each person must have access to it, the food consumed must fulfill nutritional requirements, and access must be stable enough throughout the life of the person to ensure health. These elements are hierarchical and build on one another. Having food stocks in a region is not enough to ensure universal access to that food, and even if a household has access to available food, its members may be too sick to use the food effectively to attain an active and healthy life. Finally, availability, access and utilization of food must be maintained throughout the life of each person for food security to be achieved (Barrett, 2010). Access to the food that is present in a community depends on the range of choices available to an individual or household, given the prevailing price of food, their income and the existing formal or informal safety net arrangements (Sen, 1981). When demand for food is stable, then access to food reflects the society’s distribution of wealth and access to resources. When prices are high or change rapidly, the poor suffer the most since they spend most of their income on food and have no cushion against rising prices. The urban poor, who buy all their food, are particularly vulnerable. Food price spikes, or a rapid increase in the price of food over a few months, can have large and potentially irreversible impacts on social welfare, including impacts on health, nutrition, schooling, child labor and savings (Grosh et al., 2008). Maintaining adequate consumption and defending assets in the face of rapid price increases can be enormously challenging for all except the most well off, particularly in countries whose populations already spend over half their income on food. The price of food in a local market is determined by the supply of food as well as demand. Since everyone needs to eat every day, demand is fairly constant whereas supply can be widely variable, particularly in developing countries whose food production struggles to keep pace with demand. Since countries with large food insecure populations also are characterized by economies with large numbers of semi-subsistence farmers and small field sizes, widespread weather shocks to production can have a significant effect on the amount of food a country has to feed its population. Weather shocks impact the income of these farming households as well as their expenditures, increasing the demand for food in small local markets during a time of restricted supply. Even in normal years, local markets are susceptible to seasonality of the cereal supply (abundant after harvest, scarce during the growing season) and in the price of food (high during the growing season, low after harvest) reducing food security every year when farmers are using the most energy and need the most food.