January 17

Farmers worldwide suffer as extreme weather wreaks food havoc

To address the crisis, farm ministers from around the world are gathering in Berlin Saturday to discuss climate change and food production.

By Brian K. Sullivan, Elizabeth Campbell And Rudy Ruitenberg
Bloomberg News

BOSTON — Volatile weather around the world is taking farmers on a wild ride.

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The sun shines on the dried leaves of corn plants suffering from a lack of moisture in Idaville, Ind., in 2012. Dry weather in the U.S. will cut beef output from the world’s biggest producer to the lowest level since 1994, following 2013’s bumper corn crop, which pushed America’s inventory up 30 percent.

Bloomberg News / Daniel Acker

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Tire tracks run across the dry bottom of the Morse Reservoir in Cicero, Ind., in 2012. “Extreme weather events are a massive risk to agriculture,” said Peter Kendall, president of the British National Farmers Union, who raises almost 4,000 cares of grain crops in Bedfordshire, England.

Bloomberg News / Daniel Acker

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Too much rain in northern China damaged crops in May, three years after too little rain turned the world’s second-biggest corn producer into a net importer of the grain. Dry weather in the U.S. will cut beef output from the world’s biggest producer to the lowest level since 1994, following 2013’s bumper corn crop, which pushed America’s inventory up 30 percent. British farmers couldn’t plant in muddy fields after the second-wettest year on record in 2012 dented the nation’s wheat production.

“Extreme weather events are a massive risk to agriculture,” said Peter Kendall, president of the British National Farmers Union, who raises 3,953 acres of grain crops in Bedfordshire, England. “Farmers can adapt to gradual temperature increases, but extreme weather events have the potential to completely undermine production. It could be drought, it could be too much rain, it could be extreme heat at the wrong time. It’s the extreme that does the damage.”

Farm ministers from around the world are gathering in Berlin Saturday to discuss climate change and food production at an annual agricultural forum, with a joint statement planned after the meeting.

Fast-changing weather patterns, such as the invasion of Arctic air that pushed the mercury in New York from an unseasonably warm 55 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 6 to a record low of 4 the next day, will only become more commonplace, according to the New York-based Insurance Information Institute. While the world produces enough to provide its 7 billion people with roughly 2,700 calories daily, and hunger across the globe is declining, one in eight people still don’t get enough to eat, some of which can be blamed on drought, the United Nations said.

“There’s no question, while there’s variability and volatility from year to year, the number and the cost of catastrophic weather events is on the rise, not just in the U.S., but on a global scale,” said Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of the insurance institute. “It’s all but certain that the size and the magnitude and the frequency of disaster losses in the future is going to be larger than what we see today.”

The number of weather events and earthquakes resulting in insured losses climbed last year to 880, 40 percent higher than the average of the last 30 years, according to Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer.

Research points to a culprit: an increase in greenhouse gases, generated by human activity, that are forcing global temperatures upward, said Thomas Peterson, principal scientist at the U.S. National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The warmer the air the more water it can hold, he said.

“What we’re finding worldwide is that heavy precipitation is increasing,” Peterson said.

Flood waters in Passau, Germany, in May and June reached the highest level since 1501, Munich Re said. That was the year Michelangelo first put a chisel to the block of marble that would become his sculpture of David. High water did $15.2 billion in damage in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, according to Munich Re.

A July hailstorm in Reutlingen, Germany, led to $3.7 billion in insured losses, according to Munich Re. Hailstones the size of babies’ fists cracked the windshield of Marco Kaschuba’s Peugeot.

“Two minutes before the storm started you could already hear a very loud noise,” said Kaschuba, a 33-year-old photographer. “That was from hailstones hitting the ground in the distance and coming closer.”

In 2012, Britain had its second-highest rainfall going back to 1910, according to Britain’s meteorology office. England and Wales had its third-wettest year since 1766.

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