09 May 2022

Wheat Can’t Catch a Break Right Now

India’s giant heat wave is having ripple effects for the world’s food supply.


For the past few days, a heat wave of mind-boggling scale and intensity has gripped South Asia. More than 1 billion people in India and Pakistan have endured daytime highs of 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Delhi, the world’s second-largest city, has suffered through back-to-back days of 110-degree Fahrenheit heat. And Nawabshah, Pakistan—a city of nearly 230,000 people in the country’s desert south—came within half a degree of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), the temperature at which the human body starts to cook.

The heat wave has a horrific human cost. Dozens of people have died of heatstroke, according to reports from NPR. It will have a climate cost. Although only the richest Indians own air conditioners, electricity demand is so high that the country is planning to import additional coal to keep its power grid alive.

The heat wave will also have an economic cost—one that will ripple beyond the subcontinent. As I’ve written about before, the world is suffering through a shortage of crucial commodities, including keystone cereal crops such as wheat. When Russia invaded Ukraine, it scrambled an already strained global wheat market—Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter; Ukraine, the world’s sixth largest—and sent prices soaring. India, which has enjoyed five straight years of record wheat crops, jumped in and offered to export more than usual.

The heat wave has, for now, thrown those plans into doubt. Some Indian farmers have estimated that 10 to 15 percent of their crop has died, according to Monika Tothova, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations agency. But it’s too early to know exactly how the heat wave will shape the crop.

Food shortages and rising grain prices can bend the trajectory of history. Some commentators assert they played an outsize role in the Arab Spring revolutions a decade ago. (Other experts disagree.) I have had a hard time keeping track of the many story lines involved in the current crunch, so earlier this week, I called Tothova to chat about why food prices are so high, how much climate change is to blame, and what might happen next. Here are a few takeaways from our conversation:

1. India will still probably have excess wheat. The only question is how much.

India’s biggest annual wheat crop is the rabi, which is planted from October to December and harvested in the early spring, Tothova told me. In each of the past five years, India has achieved record-breaking wheat production during its rabi season. It was on track for another bumper year when the heat wave struck.

The country got a little lucky on timing. In southern and central India, the rabi has already been harvested or is being gathered now. But big questions remain about the health of wheat in northern India, the country’s most productive region, where the crop remains largely unharvested and has therefore been baking in the searing heat. “The heat itself will not hurt the grain,” Tothova said. What agronomists worry about instead, she said, is a phenomenon called “terminal heat stress,” where extreme heat overtaxes the plant and prevents it from forming any grain at all.

If much of northern India’s wheat had yet to form its grain before the heat wave began, the effects could be severe. Northern India also drives most of the variation in India’s wheat crop: When the rabi has a bumper year, it’s because northern India boomed. Climate change actually contributed to that recent bump in a small but positive way. There’s more irrigation in northern fields now than there used to be, Tothova said, because melting glaciers in the Himalayas have increased river flow into the country. (Of course, now farmers are feeling the other side of that coin.)

Yet Tothova refused to entertain catastrophic scenarios. “Even if the heat wave in India is going to result in some localized losses, they are still looking at a pretty substantial crop in the country,” she said.

2. Ukraine is still producing wheat. The problem is getting it out.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, some 55.4 million tons of wheat—the countries’ combined total wheat production—seemed to hang in the balance. The two countries, with their famously productive soils, function as a breadbasket for Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. (Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag is meant to suggest a golden field of grain waving beneath the sky.)

Thankfully, the war has, so far, not been quite as catastrophic as feared on this measure. “Ukraine’s farmers are producing,” Tothova told me, although they’re obviously not achieving the same yields as before the war. “The problem in Ukraine will probably be how to get the stuff to the world market.”

More than 90 percent of Ukraine’s wheat goes out through its ports on the Black Sea. But Russia has blockaded those ports, meaning that Ukraine’s total commodity exports must travel by rail, barge, or truck. Ukraine used to ship 5 million tons of commodities out of its ports each month. Over land, the country can ship only about 500,000 tons a month, Tothova said.

That creates a problem for countries that have come to depend on Ukraine’s—or Russia’s—exports.

3. There isn’t a global wheat shortage. There’s a global wheat-in-the-wrong-places problem.

“At a global level, there is no shortage in the wheat market,” Tothova told me. There is a lot of wheat. It’s just not where it should be.

The wheat crisis is most pressing for Middle Eastern and African countries that imported a lot of Russian and Ukrainian wheat before the war. These countries liked Russian and Ukrainian wheat not only because the crop itself was cheap, but because it had low shipping costs. But it’s now expensive to get any product out of the region, because all cargo ships passing through the Black Sea—even those traveling from Russia or Turkey—have to pay special war-zone-insurance fees.

The crisis will fall most heavily, then, on countries that don’t have much ability to increase their income, such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and countries in the Horn of Africa, which has experienced a gutting fourth consecutive year of drought. “Iraq has oil, and oil prices are increasing. They can sell oil to get wheat,” Tothova said. “But countries that had been in a very difficult situation are now in a worse situation.”

At the top of her list: Yemen, which has been under famine conditions since 2016 due to the country’s civil war. According to the World Food Program, 17 million Yemenis are food insecure; that number is projected to reach 19 million by the end of the year.

Central and southern India will still probably have enough excess wheat to help these countries, Tothova said. But there’s no infrastructure to get that wheat to where it needs to go. The question going forward, she said, is whether higher prices and international assistance can move wheat from India and elsewhere to the countries that once depended on the Ukrainian bread basket.

What will this crisis look like from the standpoint of the United States, Europe, and other rich countries? More of the same inflation that people are already seeing. “People ask me, ‘Will the shelves be empty?’ Probably not,” Tothova said. “But prices will increase.” Eventually, higher cereal prices will drive meat prices up, because farm-raised animals eat the same staples as everyone else.

4. The wheat crisis has been worsened by a fertilizer crisis.

Fertilizer prices are at record highs, spiking 30 percent since the year began. The increase in fertilizer prices is, in a roundabout way, also linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the pandemic: Fertilizer is made with natural gas, and natural-gas prices have been high since China and Russia broke the market last year. (China stopped importing coal from Australia over a pandemic-related disagreement, and Russia reduced its natural-gas exports to Europe in the run-up to its Ukraine invasion.) Weird weather also wrecked the natural-gas market in Texas last winter.

High fertilizer prices won’t necessarily hit harvests immediately, Tothova said. Farmers can skip an application of fertilizer without destroying their yields because some fertilizer will have remained in the soil. But that built-in buffer will eventually run out. “If the situation does not improve, we may see it next season.”

5. Climate change will make these sudden spikes sharper.

Many of the problems in the wheat market can’t be blamed on climate change. But a warming and weirding planet is worsening the turbulence. Heat waves are the clearest and most easily identifiable symptom of global warming, and India’s ongoing heat wave is no exception. Those high fertilizer prices are due in part to, as I’ve written, strange weather in 2021 breaking the natural-gas market.

“Even before the war in Ukraine, the price of agricultural commodities was very high,” Tothova said. “Agriculture depends on the weather. And even people who don’t believe in climate change—they will admit that there is greater weather volatility and a higher chance of extreme events now. Those are putting additional uncertainty on agricultural production,” she said.

The climate impacts that most worry her are droughts and sudden, unpredictable changes in water availability, she said. She gave Morocco as an example. During a wet year, Morocco produces a huge amount of wheat—some 7.5 million tons. In a dry year, it grows only 2.5 million tons. Such a huge variance makes any statistically smoothed forecast impossible, Tothova said: The country either has a good year or it doesn’t. As the world gets hotter, and the Sahara expands, Morocco is likely to have even more bad years.

Food is not just about food. When a country enters a food shortage, the consequences ricochet around its economy and society. Parents pull their kids out of school to avoid paying school fees, so that they can spend more money on food. Such a decision can have decades of consequences. That’s one of many cascading effects that will make it harder to live in a warming world.

By Robinson Meyer

This article was first published on 4 May 2022 by The Atlantic.

Photo credit: Danish Puri/Unsplash