These disasters combined with high oil prices (and no likelihood of them falling significantly barring a further worsening of global economy), an increasing share of fertile land being diverted into growing largely pointless biofuels, declining water tables (more than half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling), a growing demand for land and water intensive western-style diets in the rising Asian middle class, soil degradation removing an area the size of Greece each year from the world's arable land, declining improvements in yields from agronomy (where something of a plateau seems to have been reached in many places as farmers catch up with scientists), and a volatile commodities market with cash looking for the next quick profit and we have a perfect recipe for the very kind of event that climate scientists, ecologists and economists have been warning about for some time: food price spikes. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has calculated a Food Price Index since 1990 and the last six months have seen figures rise to their highest since tracking began.
It might be frustrating for us in the UK if the price of bread goes up and we can't afford our holiday to Northern Africa (not that we're going this year; drought-stricken France it is then), but it is a bit more than an inconvenience or a disappointment in places where up to 80% of income is spent on food. It is a recipe for hunger, disease and social unrest. The last dramatic spike in 2008 led to riots in thirty countries and the government of Haiti being overthrown. The spike that has continued since early this year has already played a part in the Arab Spring and is pushing tens of millions back into malnutrition.
This is what climate change looks like (at least for now - remember we are only 0.8 degrees into what may well be a 4 degrees plus experience). Not that every hot day or drought or flood or snow storm can be blamed on us, but that our actions have affected the system to a degree that overall productivity of our agricultural system is made less reliable (one recent study claimed that our changing climate has already put a 5.5% dent in wheat yields), threatening in turn the political system. Climate change is not the only pressure on the food system, but it is the wild-card in the pack of predicaments. Another disturbing development is that projections for expected food production may need to be downgraded in light of another recent study that found that higher carbon dioxide levels contribute less benefit to crops than previously thought.
Rising population and dietary changes mean that food requirements are projected to double by 2050. There are bright spots of opportunity, but the target is looking increasingly out of reach.
A recent report released by Oxfam predicted a doubling of food prices by 2030, which has led to a flurry of media analysis (I found this case study to be particularly illuminating of the systemic problems in how we currently do things).
What are we to do in light of this? All kinds of things. But we can begin by taking a closer look at the food on our plate and becoming interested in where it has come from, what it cost (socially and ecologically) to get it there and what alternatives are already available to us. If we pray "give us this day our daily bread", we cannot take food for granted.