Geopolitical Aftershock: Climate Change and Commodities

Food security and the dangers of a hungry population are a major global risk and geopolitical flashpoint. Corn, rice, soy, coffee, copper, iron, nickel, crude oil, natural gas and propane are just a few of commodities traded in huge Supertanker sizes quantities across the world.

Commodity trading is worth billions a year and is a cornerstone of the global economy, the glue that connects farmers, miners to merchants, industrialists and refiners to consumers.

However, a sobering new report by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission highlighted the fact that financial markets are not recognising the risk that climate change poses to commodity trading. These risks could plunge commodity markets into chaos even if they are recognised.

Millions of people already suffer from food poverty and insecurity in India, Africa and Latin America, but even in the wealthy United States around 10 percent of households suffered food insecurity last year as the country experienced a sharp pandemic sparked recession.

Climate change over the next couple of decades will dry rivers, disrupt traditional weather and weather patterns such as monsoons. A warmer world means more wild fires, drought and sea level rise which will destroy coastal farmland and river deltas.

All this spells bad news for agriculture, climate change will decimate crop yields across the world while population is still predicted to be growing.

The FAO expects the global population to rise by 2 billion and food demand to grow by 60 percent by 2050. But by 2050 without drastic action catastrophic climate change will be ravaging agriculture.  

For example India, Vietnam and Thailand are the world’s premier rice exporters, a major drought in two or three of these places would see a major global rise in the price of rice.

As these effects take hold over the next decade and the realisation that agricultural produce is less secure, there will be a concerted effort to monitor and protect food sources so exports do not mean local people starve.

Food Nationalism

Food nationalism will take hold across the world as populations demand government’s prioritise local food chains. During the pandemic a number of countries put exports controls in place to ensure their own people got fed first. Export clampdown will in turn create further prices swings.

There are many ways which humans will combat these problems, many innovative solutions exist including:

  • Vertical farms growing crops inside away from the vagaries of weather, such Danish venture Nordic Harvest.
  • Growing more climate resilient crops which are better able to withstand heat and drought.
  • Farming and agricultural production could also be boosted through improved technology or by utilising more farmland

However these measures are unlikely to stop the full force of climate change, some crops such as rice and wheat cannot be grown at scale indoors and there is limit to resilience measures and how far crops can be adapted.  

Insecticides and pesticides are already decimating insect populations across the world and much of the world’s land is already severely degraded. Given so much land has already been put under the plough there is a limit to how much more can used.

The trade in metals and minerals are not immune to climate risks. It might appear that mining would be unaffected by climate change, but droughts, extreme weather and extreme heat could all make certain mining operations much more difficult. Mines that rely on regular water supplies could see those dry to a trickle.

Global Supply Chains

Global supply chains which bring these metals from deep inside the earth to be processed and sent onto to manufacturing plants in an intricate series of steps will be under more threat than ever before. Extreme weather events, flooding, greater incidence of disease and growing geopolitical tensions are just a few of the factors which those governing supply chains will be concerned about.

In geopolitical terms fluctuating commodity markets will create major price fluctuations and supply problems will push suppliers to look for more stable sources of commodities.

Crops and agricultural produce will be sourced from new more climatically suitable areas. So the South of England could become a major wine growing region while the Spain and Italy suffer as their crops suffer in excess heat. Innovative companies like Nordic Harvest could be big winners as the world turns to innovate climate friendly solutions.

Coffee Shortages

Countries most exposed to climate change – South Asia and Africa will suffer most acutely will also see the commodities such as coffee, chocolate, rice are likely to be hit hard.  Coffee the drink which powers people’s mornings in every corner of the world is a US$ 70 billion a year industry. Now warmer temperatures are encouraging the fungal diseases which are destroying crops.

Changes in rainfall patterns are also costing coffee growers, too much rain can make the fungal infections worse, too little and the crop will not grow. Adaptation is hard because of the unpredictability of rainfall and heat, if you invest in a drought resistant crop but then experience excessive rainfall and widespread fungal growth any resilience measures will be unhelpful. Right now customers are not feeling any change, but in time they could see prices rises and many varieties wiped out.

Instability and the effect of climate on commodities has not been priced in by global markets which means any correction could be painful and expensive. Investors are increasingly turning to risks assessment like the Task Force for Climate Related Climate Disclosures which attempt to measures a company’s climate risk exposure.

Commodity trader and suppliers will have to pay close attention to climate risks as they disrupt global markets over the next decades.