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The Climate Change Conundrum

ith the June 20 crop insurance past, farmers and their crop insurance agents are pulling on their galoshes to assess the

W damages from yet another spring with too much water.

Cattle producers are worrying about winter feed supplies as they watch flood waters inundate their hayfields.

We are told this year is one for the record books. The fact that excess water has been a growing issue in this province for years, and that it could take years for some of the areas affected by this year’s flooding to recover – if they resurface at all – is a little unnerving for the people whose name is on the deed, the operating line of credit and the mortgage.

Likewise for the politicians – and taxpayers – faced with the cost of compensation.

In the midst of our verdant crisis, a disaster of a different sort is unfolding elsewhere. Officials in Texas say the past eight months have been the driest since precipitation record-keeping began in the 1890s. Cattle producers must sell their herds or watch them starve. China is experiencing both drought and killing floods. Drought is cutting into production in France too, where G20 leaders are gathering to discuss ways of curbing increasingly volatile global food prices.

Whoops, and there go the share prices of one of the big fertilizer suppliers – rising like a hot-air balloon as shareholders prepare to cash in on the latest food crisis.

“Record global crop prices are driving demand for all crop inputs,” Agrium chief executive Mike Wilson said as the company raised its quarterly earnings outlook last week.

An FAO and OECD report cited in a Reuters story last week said world commodity prices will continue to push higher throughout this decade, creating unprecedented pressure on the poor and politicians.

“Commodity prices should fall from the highs of early 2011, but in real terms are projected to average up to 20 per cent higher for cereals (maize) and up to 30 per cent for meats (poultry) over the 2011- 20 period compared to the last decade,” the report said.

World food prices hit a record high earlier this year, triggered mainly by bad weather, reviving memories of soaring prices in 2007-08 that sparked riots in countries such as Egypt, Haiti and Cameroon.

Lurking in the background is the widely cited prediction that food availability will need to increase by up to 70 per cent globally by the middle of this century if it is to keep up with the escalating demand for food.

If we’re not keeping up now, how on earth will we do it then?

So on one end of the spectrum, we have farmers facing climate-induced uncertainty. It’s wonderful to have high prices, but not so much fun if you can’t produce something to sell.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who worry about having enough to eat as their grocery bill spirals beyond what their income allows.

In the middle is an uneasy mix of political, commercial and environmental forces that seem more inclined to clash than co-operate.

G20 leaders are mired in a debate this week over whether to rein in the commodity markets or whether there is some other means of containing volatile and politically destabilizing price swings.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has blamed speculators for food price inflation that has fuelled unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. He’s pushing for tougher commodity-trading rules.

But he has so far failed to win much support. Regulation can have unintended consequences. Postwar food policies in the EU, which were designed to ensure there would never be food shortages in Europe again, were remarkably successful, to the point where the stockpiles of food became burdensome and damaging to prices worldwide.

Other proposals on the table include more sharing of information on stocks of key commodities, information that is closely guarded in countries like China. Or simply pouring more investment into increasing farm output through the use of new technologies.

The trouble with relying on technological fixes is weather. Advanced yield potential is of little use if you can’t get into your fields to plant it, or if it is too cold, too hot or too dry for it to grow properly.

Resolution to the world’s food crisis will come from a combination of political intervention, innovation and of course, technology. But we have to be more creative than focusing solely on increased production through strategies such as reduced waste and improved distribution.

Even though farmers have shown their willingness to increase production, their financial “reward” has been lower prices and higher production costs. It’s a model that works politically, because if supplies rise, food prices don’t. But it’s not a model that is economically or environmentally sustainable over the long term because it presumes farmers are capable of doing the impossible – outsmarting the weather. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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