Dependence on food imports threatens developing countries, report finds

The possible knock-on effects of droughts and floods on food prices and security have been highlighted by a new study. [Oxfam East Africa/Flickr]

Extreme weather and restrictive export policies could create a food crisis that would threaten 200 million people worldwide, a study has shown. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Wheat, rice and corn are staples of diets around the world, but many developing countries do not produce enough for their own needs. Countries that have to import in large quantities in order to feed their population put their food security at risk when they rely on just one or two major exporters, according to the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin.

The MCC researchers reported on what the likely consequences on different regions would be if their imports were to be cut off suddenly, for example by heat waves or drought. The results showed that countries with high levels of poverty, especially those in West Africa, would be hugely affected.

The study‘s lead author, Christopher Bren d’Amour, cited Thailand as an example: “If Thailand, the biggest exporter of rice worldwide, were to halt its exports, 136 million people from Mauretania to Nigeria would be affected.” Just a 5% drop in the volume of rice on a developing country’s market could lead to a price jump of 17%. “This is significant, when someone has to survive on less than $2 a day,” the researcher added.

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The investigation identified the dependence of countries on US corn exports as another risk. If the States was to halt production then 21 million people, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, would be put at risk of hunger. Many North African and Middle Eastern countries are especially vulnerable to import-related cereal price increases.

Bren d’Amour does not rule this out as a possibility. Major exporting nations like Russia, Thailand and Vietnam favour restrictive export policies during crises, in order to boost their internal markets. At the same time, extreme weather events pose an immediate danger and have been proven to have a devastating impact.

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A sobering scenario identified by the MCC entails a 10% drop-off in rice, wheat and corn exports leading to 55 million people going hungry and 58 countries suffering from price increases. “If flooding was to hit the rice production of Vietnam’s Mekong delta, then people in the slums of Lagos and Nigeria would no longer be able to afford staples such as rice,” warned another of the study’s contributors, Felix Creutzig. This shows a clear link between the climate risks of one region and the level of hunger in another part of the world.

This is particularly worrying when the OECD’s latest statistics are taken into account. Its “Agricultural Outlook 2014-2023” expects food production to have to increase in the coming decade due to changing eating habits and a growing population, with Asia and Latin America identified as the regions that will have to satisfy this demand. Overall, they are expected to account for more than 75% of additional agricultural production over the next ten years.

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The MCC investigators proposed preventative measures to guard against potential food crises, among them, strengthening domestic agriculture. They also suggested countries expand their portfolio of trading partners and encouraged a wider and more varied diet.

Irrigation and several harvests during the year, cultivating different crops, could increase and diversify income in tropical and subtropical countries. The study concluded that the more money people in developing countries have, the higher their capacity to deal with the effects of price fluctuations will be.

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Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change: Teleconnected food supply shocks

OCDE: Agricultural outlook

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