The past eight years have been the warmest on record as a result of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and accumulated heat in the earth’s atmosphere, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
This year was remarkable for a series of heatwaves around the world, including here in Europe. However, in 2022 alone, extreme heatwaves, drought and devastating flooding have affected hundreds of millions of people and cost billions this year. This weather has implications for health and wellbeing, agriculture and food supplies, energy prices and demand, and natural ecosystems.
These events are in line with the evidence presented in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report that the frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased.
In fact, the World Meteorological Organisation has said that climate change made the heatwave in India and Pakistan 30 times more likely.
No regions escaped
The past year saw multiple heatwaves in regions across the world, which stood out either because of the extreme temperatures reached, their duration and/or their occurrence early in the season.
Extreme heat in India and Pakistan made headlines across the world as both countries grappled with temperatures in excess of 45oC.
The event was distinct given the early, severe and prolonged nature of the heatwave. Pakistan then experienced exceptional flooding which peaked in late August placing July and August as the wettest on record for the country.
Across the northern hemisphere, exceptionally hot and dry conditions were experienced in China, Europe and North Africa during the summer. China had the most prolonged and severe heatwave on record.
The heatwaves that gripped much of Europe in June, July and August followed an atypical spring.
Multiple countries, including Ireland, experienced record or record-breaking temperatures.
Drought was widespread across the continent persisting into August when rivers fell to critically low levels. As the drought broke, thunderstorms and persistent rain posed a different type of challenge.
The Horn of Africa has experienced an intense drought as a result of the fourth consecutive poor wet season. The weather impact has perhaps been most noticeable there, as over 18m people experienced an acute food crisis.
In Europe, drought, combined with high fertiliser prices, took a toll on cereal production with total production forecast to be down 7.8% on last year, according to the EU short-term outlook.
In addition, pasture across the continent, including in parts of Ireland, struggled, and impacted in particular on dairy output, which is projected to be down marginally on last year.
Constrained water supply impacted irrigation across the continent and wildfires devastated forestry across Spain, France and Portugal.
India, which is the second largest wheat producer in the world, banned wheat exports to avoid shortages after heat impacted on harvest volumes.
The decision caused wheat prices to spike globally, not because India is a key exporter but owing to concerns about great stress on grain markets.
The prolonged heat has disrupted plantings and harvesting in several regions including in Argentina, where drought conditions from La Niña persist.
But it’s not just production that has suffered, water infrastructure is key to global supply chains, including in agri-food.
River navigation was disrupted in China, Europe and the US just as supply chains were starting to move more freely post-Covid-19.
Record low water levels on the Mississippi River in the US disrupted both the domestic supply chain, fertilisers in particular were impacted during the season, but also the US’s exports.
While the problem has been building for months, it is now disrupting exports from the US grain harvest and causing problems at farm and merchant levels as storage is becoming an issue.
Global, European and domestic challenges have all impacted on farmers in this season
Building resilience in food systems is a common theme at conferences and in commentary on the sector.
It often doesn’t fully resonate with farmers, businesses or professionals in the sector that are busy managing the here and now.
However, taking time to absorb the challenges that weather and climate have posed during 2022 reinforces the fragility of the global food supply system.
Global, European and domestic challenges have all impacted on farmers.
While record high prices may not appear challenging, they belie a raft of pressures on the food system which ultimately challenge the capacity to deliver sufficient food for the world’s population.
They are also reflective of a system that is under significant pressure from external factors including climate and geo-politics.
Global food system
The more severe this pressure becomes, the greater the need to challenge, change and fix the global food system.
Ultimately, the purpose of this sector is to feed humanity but when food becomes so expensive that it is beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of people, the system is failing.
And while in the short term farmers may experience a boon in profits, albeit moderated by rising input prices, it reinforces that over the medium to long term the system is not sustainable.