An unprecedented threat could send the price of this popular pantry staple soaring: ‘The new normal’

Earlier this year, the World Meteorological Organization forecasted the start of the first El Niño event in seven years, which academic news outlet The Conversation said could affect the price of “breadbasket” staples like wheat.

What’s happening?

El Niño is a naturally occurring weather event in which the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean rises. As a result, some parts of the world, like Australia, face elevated temperatures and subsequent droughts.

“The onset of El Niño will greatly increase the likelihood of breaking temperature records and triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a press release.

David Ubilava, an associate professor of economics at the University of Sydney, noted that the extreme weather caused by El Niño might be “the new normal” because of human-induced overheating of the planet.

While the WMO predicted this next iteration of El Niño to be moderate, it will still disrupt the food and agriculture industry.

Per Ubilava, wheat production in Australia has dropped drastically in six of the last nine El Niño events of at least moderate strength, likely indicating what’s to come.

Why is it concerning?

Tridge, a global food sourcing and data hub, listed Australia as the leading wheat exporter last year at 17% of the global output — worth about $10 billion.

With such a crucial player vulnerable to extreme weather changes, wheat prices could skyrocket in the coming months.

After all, rising temperatures across Europe have led to a decline in crop yields for olives and hops, impacting the prices of olive oil and beer. Meanwhile, in California, similar heat waves have threatened tomato numbers.

What can I do to help?

If there’s a potential silver lining, it’s that Australia accounts for just 3.5% of global wheat production. Furthermore, El Niño causes increased rainfall in some parts of the world, meaning other wheat-producing nations may help offset any losses suffered by Australia.

Nonetheless, the WMO’s press release served as a notice to nations of the potentially devastating effects of El Niño.

“The declaration of an El Niño by WMO is the signal to governments around the world to mobilize preparations to limit the impacts on our health, our ecosystems and our economies,” Taalas said. “Early warnings and anticipatory action of extreme weather events associated with this major climate phenomenon are vital to save lives and livelihoods.”

And since the resulting weather events of El Niño are exacerbated by human-driven pollution, it’s another reminder that every action we take — whether it’s as something as small as drinking out of a reusable water bottle or something as large as buying an electric vehicle — has a domino effect, even for something that seems as distant as wheat production in a country halfway around the world.

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