For the past few days, a heat wave of mind-boggling scale and intensity has gripped South Asia. More than a billion people in India and Pakistan have endured daytime high temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Delhi, the world’s second largest city, has suffered consecutive days of 110 degree Fahrenheit heat. And Nawabshah, Pakistan, a city of nearly 230,000 in the country’s southern desert, was within a half degree of 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), the temperature at which the human body begins to cook.
The heat wave has a terrible human cost. Dozens of people have died from heatstroke, according to NPR reports. It will have a climate cost. Although only the wealthiest Indians own air conditioners, demand for electricity is so high that the country plans to import additional coal to keep its power grid alive.
The heat wave will also have an economic cost, which will extend beyond the subcontinent. As I have written before, the world is experiencing shortages of crucial staples, including key cereal crops like wheat. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it stirred up an already strained global wheat market: Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter; Ukraine, the sixth largest in the world, and shot up prices. India, which has enjoyed five consecutive years of record wheat harvests, stepped in and offered to export more than usual.
The heat wave, for now, has cast doubt on those plans. Some Indian farmers have estimated that 10 to 15 percent of their crop has died, according to Monika Tothova, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But it is too early to know exactly how the heat wave will affect the crop.
Food shortages and rising grain prices may twist the course of history. Some commentators claim that they played a major role in the Arab Spring revolutions a decade ago. (Other experts disagree.) I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the many stories involved in the current crisis, so earlier this week I called Tothova to chat about why food prices are so high. , how much is the fault of climate change. , and what might happen next. Here are some points from our conversation:
1. India probably still has a glut of wheat. The only question is how much.
India’s biggest annual wheat crop is rabi, which is planted from October to December and harvested in early spring, Tothova told me. In each of the last five years, India has achieved record wheat production during its rabies season. I was on my way to another extraordinary year when the heat wave hit.
The country was a bit lucky with the timing. In south and central India, rabi has already been harvested or is now being harvested. But big questions remain about the health of wheat in northern India, the country’s most productive region, where the crop remains largely unharvested and thus has been baking in the scorching heat. “The heat itself will not damage the grain,” Tothova said. Instead, what worries agronomists, he said, is a phenomenon called “terminal heat stress,” in which extreme heat overloads the plant and prevents it from forming any kernels.
If much of the wheat in northern India had not yet formed grain before the heat wave began, the effects could be severe. North India also drives most of the variation in India’s wheat crop: when the rabi has a bumper year, it’s because North India boomed. Climate change actually contributed to that recent bump in a small but positive path. There is more irrigation in the northern fields now than before, Tothova said, because melting glaciers in the Himalayas have increased the flow of rivers into the country. (Of course, farmers are now feeling the other side of that coin.)
However, Tothova refused to consider catastrophic scenarios. “Even if the heat wave in India is going to cause some localized losses, they still expect a pretty big crop in the country,” he said.
2. Ukraine continues to produce wheat. The problem is getting it out.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, some 55.4 million tons of wheat (the countries’ combined total wheat production) seemed to be in the balance. The two countries, with their famous productive soils, function as a bread basket for Europe, Asia and North Africa. (The blue and yellow flag of Ukraine is meant to suggest a golden field of grain waving under the sky.)
Fortunately, the war, so far, has not been as catastrophic as feared to this extent. “Ukrainian farmers are producing,” Tothova told me, although they are obviously not achieving the same yields as before the war. “The problem in Ukraine will probably be how to get things to the world market.”
More than 90 percent of Ukraine’s wheat leaves through its Black Sea ports. But Russia has blocked those ports, meaning Ukraine’s total commodity exports must travel by train, barge or truck. Ukraine used to ship 5 million tons of commodities from its ports every month. Overland, the country can only ship about 500,000 tons a month, Tothova said.
That creates a problem for countries that have come to depend on exports from Ukraine or Russia.
3. There is no world shortage of wheat. There is a global wheat problem in the wrong places.
“Globally, there is no shortage in the wheat market,” Tothova told me. There is a lot of wheat. It just isn’t where it should be.
The wheat crisis is most pressing for countries in the Middle East and Africa that imported a lot of Russian and Ukrainian wheat before the war. These countries liked Russian and Ukrainian wheat not only because the crop itself was cheap, but because it had low shipping costs. But now it’s expensive to get none product outside the region, because all cargo ships passing through the Black Sea, even those traveling from Russia or Turkey, have to pay special war zone insurance rates.
The crisis will fall most heavily, then, on countries that do not have much capacity to increase their income, such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the countries of the Horn of Africa, which has experienced a harrowing fourth consecutive year of drought. “Iraq has oil and oil prices are rising. They can sell oil to get wheat,” Tothova said. “But countries that had been in a very difficult situation are now in a worse situation.”
At the top of his list: Yemen, which has been in famine conditions since 2016 due to the country’s civil war. According to the World Food Program, 17 million Yemenis are food insecure; that number is projected to reach 19 million by the end of the year.
Central and southern India will probably still have enough excess wheat to help these countries, Tothova said. But there is no infrastructure to get that wheat where it needs to go. The question going forward, she said, is whether higher prices and international assistance can move wheat from India and elsewhere to countries that once relied on Ukraine’s bread basket.
What will this crisis look like from the point of view of the United States, Europe and other rich countries? More of the same inflation that people are already seeing. “People ask me, ‘Will the shelves be empty?’ Probably not,” Tothova said. “But prices will go up.” Eventually, higher grain prices will drive up meat prices, because farm-raised animals eat the same staple foods as everyone else.
4. The wheat crisis has been aggravated by the fertilizer crisis.
Fertilizer prices are at record highs, rising 30 percent since the year began. The rise in fertilizer prices is also indirectly related to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the pandemic: fertilizers are made using natural gas, and natural gas prices have been high since China and Russia stormed the market last week. last year. (China stopped importing coal from Australia over a pandemic-related disagreement, and Russia cut its natural gas exports to Europe in the run-up to the Ukraine invasion.) Weird weather also wrecked the natural gas market in Texas last winter.
High fertilizer prices won’t necessarily affect crops right away, Tothova said. Farmers can skip a fertilizer application without destroying their yields because some of the fertilizer will have remained in the soil. But that built-in buffer will eventually run out. “If the situation doesn’t improve, we may see it next season.”
5. Climate change will make these sudden spikes sharper.
Many of the problems in the wheat market cannot be attributed to climate change. But a planet heating up and becoming alien is making the turbulence worse. Heat waves are the clearest and most easily identifiable symptom of global warming, and the ongoing heat wave in India is no exception. Those high fertilizer prices are due in part, as I’ve written, to weird weather in 2021 that broke the natural gas market.
“Even before the war in Ukraine, the price of agricultural products was very high,” Tothova said. “Agriculture depends on the weather. And even people who don’t believe in climate change will admit that there is now greater climate volatility and a higher probability of extreme events. Those are putting additional uncertainty in agricultural production,” she said.
The climate impacts that concern him most are droughts and sudden and unpredictable changes in water availability, he said. He put Morocco as an example. During a rainy year, Morocco produces a huge amount of wheat, about 7.5 million tons. In a dry year, it grows only 2.5 million tons. Such a large variance makes any statistically smooth forecast impossible, Tothova said: The country either has a good year or it doesn’t. As the world gets warmer and the Sahara expands, Morocco is likely to have even more bad years.
Food is not just about food. When a country experiences food shortages, the consequences affect its economy and society. Parents take their children out of school to avoid paying school fees and to be able to spend more money on food. Such a decision can have decades of consequences. That’s one of many cascading effects that will make it harder to live in a warming world.