Record temperatures shrinking world grain harvest

by Lester R. Brown

August 28, 2003, Earth Policy Institute: On August 12 at 8:30 a.m., the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its monthly estimate of the world grain harvest, reporting a 32-million-ton drop from the July estimate. When grain futures markets opened later in the morning, prices of wheat, rice, and corn jumped.

This 32-million-ton drop, equal to half the U.S. wheat harvest, was concentrated in Europe where record-high temperatures have withered crops. The affected region stretched from the United Kingdom and France in the west through the Ukraine in the east. The searing heat damaged crops in virtually every country in Europe.

The soaring temperatures of the past several weeks rewrote the record book. On August 10, the temperature in London reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)--the first triple-digit reading on record in the United Kingdom. France had 11 consecutive days in August with temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). In Italy, temperatures reached 41 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).

The heat wave in Europe started in early summer when Switzerland, situated in the heart of Europe, experienced the hottest June since recordkeeping began 140 years ago. In July the heat wave spread across the rest of Europe.

Crops suffered the most in Eastern Europe, which is harvesting its smallest wheat crop in 30 years. In the Ukraine, the wheat crop, already severely damaged by winter kill, was reduced further by the heat, plummeting from 21 million tons last year to 5 million tons this year. As a result, the Ukraine, a leading wheat exporter last year, has been forced to import wheat as bread prices threaten to spiral out of control. Romania, which was particularly hard hit by heat and drought, is expecting to harvest the smallest wheat crop on record. The Czech Republic is expecting its poorest grain harvest in 25 years.

The prolonged heat wave, which persisted through mid August, also reduced the German grain harvest. The German Farmers Union reports that in southeastern Germany some farmers may lose half of their grain crop.

This reduced estimate of the world grain harvest will expand the world grain shortfall this year to 82 million tons. With projected world grain consumption of 1,912 million tons exceeding production of 1,830 million tons by 4 percent, the world is engaged in a massive drawdown of grain stocks. (See data at http://www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update27_data.htm.) With this year's drawdown, world grain stocks have dropped to the lowest level since the early 1970s. When world grain stocks dropped to a dangerously low level in 1973, world prices of wheat and rice doubled.