Forecast for 2014: El Nino - and Grain Famine

Scientists are predicting another El Nino weather pattern this year. If it hits hard, it could ruin grain crops - and the world is ill-prepared, says Israeli scientist Hendrik Bruins.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Indonesian farmers planting rice. The government hopes to reduce the impact of the so-called El Nino, a weather pattern that can bring drought to Australia, Southeast Asia and India. Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Brace for it: Scientists are forecasting that another El Nino weather system will apparently develop this summer, leading to even more extreme weather events. The system might wait for winter in the northern hemisphere, the scientists add, but arrive it almost certainly will – and if it’s a bad one, it could lead to crop failures. Countries that depend on grain imports, including Israel, could be hard hit.

Recent decades and mainly, the last few years have been marked by extreme weather, which even climate-change deniers have had to notice. This last winter – well, in Israel it never really arrived, barring the mega-storm that dumped snow on Cairo and cut off whole neighborhoods around Jerusalem for days. In the United States, many states suffered a brutal winter that melted into a spring featuring torrential downpours and floods – or severe drought in other areas, including California. Following an onerous winter season, Europe was washed by the heaviest rain in 120 years and southern China was inundated. Now El Nino is expected to pump up the action.

The weather phenomenon called El Niño was named for the Baby Jesus, explains Prof. Hendrik Bruins, an expert on climate change and food security at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

El Nino develops when the winds across the Pacific die down and the surface of the equatorial water gets warmer than usual, by at least half a degree Celsius. (The opposite effect, when that band cools, is called El Nina.)

That warm water moves eastward toward South America, which sets off a chain of reactions that affect weather around the world.

Israel buys 90 percent of its grain from the world market. Baguettes like these could be a rare commodity if El Nino hits hard. Credit: Bloomberg

“The Chilean coast usually features cold water that rises from the bottom to the surface of the ocean. That cold water originates from Antartica, flowing along the ocean floor,” says Bruins. “That rising cold water is full of nutrients for fish.” But from time to time, the strength of the winds over the ocean changes and the deep, cold water fails to rise. The Chilean coast is bathed in warm water that has almost no nutrients for fish, and the fishermen go on holiday because they have nothing to do. “As it used to happen at Christmas, they called it the Boy – after Jesus,” he explains.

El Nino causes atypical weather, which can be predicted to at least some degree at the level of continents. Not so much small countries.

“Here in Israel, we concluded from studying previous years that anything can happen, from drought to torrential rainfall,” says Bruins, noting that while El Nino is a repetitive phenomenon, its strength and duration can’t be foretold. “The literature refers to weak, moderate and strong El Nino. A strong one can be highly unpleasant, causing things like devastating drought in Australia and Indonesia, and sometimes also in the United States. El Nino can even dry out India, weakening the monsoons,” says Bruins.

And that can have a trickle-down problem caused by what the professor views as a mistake by leading economists that could wind up costing many lives.

The problem is that the United States and Australia now supply most of the grain to the world. ”Some 105 countries depend on importing grain. We’re among them,” says Bruins. “Israel has to buy 90% of our grain from the world market. If El Nino hits hard, in India or China, and their crops diminish badly, it will be impossible for the U.S. and Australia, which will have droughts of their own, to supply the world with enough grain.”

India and China would buy up the world market and that would be that, he explains.

This problem is exacerbated by the mistake, which is that there are hardly any reserves of grain around the world – as a matter of policy, says Bruins.

“Farmers have always known, since the agricultural revolution in Neolithic times some 10,000 years ago, that they can’t predict if a crop will succeed. So just as we insure our car or home and health, we should store grain,” says the professor. “But come the 1970s and globalization, some important economists began saying that storing grain in silos is unnecessary. Silos take up space and it costs money to store the grain. Sometimes things go wrong and the entire grain content has to be thrown out. Thanks to globalization, they figured, anybody could buy grain from the world market, so there was no need to store, only to have enough money to buy the grain.”

But that is a fallacy that could have catastrophic consequences, says the professor. “Never before in human history had such a notion arisen. Globalization without substantial food reserves is a recipe for disaster. If the world market runs out of grain, everybody will have to wait six months for a new crop.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., sowing is underway and the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't basing its predictions on an onerous growing season.