The Inequality of El Niño: Why the world goes hungry when there is food to spare

Indonesia, 1997— First came the drought.indonesia_ElNino Strong El Niño conditions delayed the rainfall, as Indonesia entered its driest period in fifty years.  Fields fallowed and harvests declined.  Then came the forest fires, more than 40,000 of them, black peat smoke blanketing the skies, further depressing crop yields and resulting in massive food shortages.  To compensate, the Indonesian government imported more than 5.8 million tons of rice—30% of the global market and the largest import of rice in history by a single country.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Argentina and Brazil’s soybean production was booming.

El Niño isn’t fair.  The phenomenon not only impacts global climate, it has substantial—and uneven—economic and social consequences.  Some countries benefit, others suffer.

Today we are talking with Bren School economics professor, Kyle Meng, whose research investigates some of these global patterns of El Niño inequality.  His recent paper reveals how forecasting and anticipating these impacts could help avoid some of these social and economic catastrophes that occur in regions where El Niño hits the hardest.


Consequences of El Niño the winners and losers. 

The inequalities of El Niño are illustrated clearly when it comes to climate conditions that affect crop yields, and result in what Meng calls, “global asymmetry.”

“In the last half century, we have seen very clear effects of El Niño events on food production,” Meng explains. Tropical regions (accounting for roughly half the global population) experience hotter and drier conditions that dramatically lower food production, while more temperate regions typically experience “bumper crops.”

The conditions in the tropics result in food shortages, hunger, and increased civil conflict.  In fact, the risk of a civil war breaking out during an El Niño doubles compared to much cooler La Niña years.


Starving in a Time of Plenty

The unfortunate irony of El Niño is that global food production as a whole actually increases.  The food surplus in temperate regions is large enough to more than offset the losses in tropical countries, at least in theory.

The problem in the tropics then lies not in food availability, but in food distribution.

Anticipating El Niño events and narrowing the uncertainty of their agricultural impacts, could enable governments to take preventative action, potentially precluding El Niño driven food shortages from occurring in the first place, assuming food can be redistributed appropriately.

Through advancements in technology and climate models, scientists can now predict El Niño events in a way we never have before.  These scientific advancements, if applied, could help provide insight into some of the global agricultural inequities around the world we see during El Niño events.  

What if we had anticipated the food shortages in Indonesia–the loss in rice production and the resulting 300% rise in rice prices?  What if we had understood the 1997-1998 El Niño better?  What could we have done?


The Solutions

Predicting an El Niño will not prevent its arrival. What it will do is give countries time to prepare for potential food shortages and food surplus.

Kyle Meng believes that understanding the impact of El Niño on global food production patterns, at least on a granular scale, provides the opportunity to develop solutions to prevent some of these food crises.

As a short term solution, countries that benefit from El Niño conditions (such as The United States, Canada, Northern Europe) can begin to preemptively stockpile food surplus and prepare for redistribution to countries in the tropics.

Longer term solutions might include improving the overall food distribution infrastructure, which might require lowering trade barriers or tariffs, and improving access to financial instruments, such as crop insurance.


Thinking bigger

These solutions have the potential to have a much broader application as well, offering insights into larger climate events such as anthropogenic climate change.  Climate change has been shown to result in pressures analogous to that of El Niño, with similar “winners” and “losers.”  Therefore the solutions like improving market redistribution, may also be applicable.   

For Indonesia, this year’s “Godzilla” El Niño is not unlike that of 1997-1998.  Conditions are dry, crop production has decreased, and forest fires raged this fall, resulting in dangerous levels of air pollution. The impact on Indonesia’s rice production (and future rice imports) will not be fully known for a few months, but imports are already predicted for 2016, suggesting that not much has changed since 1997.

Solutions cannot be implemented overnight.  Only time will tell if governments and organizations can dramatically change food markets and food redistribution.  But research like Kyle Meng’s does offer hope that change could be in our future and have a big impact on the part of the world that suffers from food shortages during large El Niño events.



Ever wondered what questions a scientist’s current research inspires them to ask next?

Share this post

No comments

Add yours