2023 is an El Nino year, meaning that normal weather patterns in the eastern Pacific Ocean are disrupted by an unusual warming of surface waters. El Niño recurs every two to ten years, and impacts weather conditions around the globe.
So what does that mean in practical terms?
“Typically, with an El Niño you will see global reductions in economic growth and country-level impacts that can actually persist for years,” said U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Global Food Insecurity, Dr. Cary Fowler. “You also typically see global declines in production of some of the major staple crops: wheat, rice, maize.”
“We’re already seeing declines in fish harvest off the coast of Peru. And in fact, just recently, Peru announced that it was suspending the anchovy harvest there for the first season. The last time they did that was a previous El Niño, 2014-15.”
That’s important, said Dr. Fowler, because anchovies are a main ingredient in animal feeds and fish meal. The failure of the anchovy crop could start a dominos effect leading to higher grain prices and eventually to a global food crisis, like we saw in the early 1970s.
“El Niño is also correlated … with an uptick in conflict,” said Dr. Fowler.
“It’s a threat multiplier … doubling the chances of conflict in Africa and playing a significant role in over 20 percent of the conflicts there since 1950.”
“We can’t change the weather overnight, but the State Department has been the catalyst for a number of programs, which … are directly related to how the world is going to be responding to this El Niño and future El Niños,” said Dr. Fowler. Programs such as Adapted Crops and Soils, which explores how traditional and indigenous crops in Africa will do in a climate-changed world. Or USAID’s multi-country program in Africa that’s bringing drought-tolerant maize, for example, to millions of farms in Southern Africa.
Working through the Department of State, said Dr. Fowler, the United States Government is partnering with the African Union and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization “to bring more attention and more investment to the traditional and indigenous crops, starting in Africa, that have so much more potential to provide for food security in those areas.”
“Fundamentals for food security,” said Dr. Fowler, “are … healthy, fertile soils and … crops adapted to both the weather and to market conditions.”