THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good morning – or good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing on El Niño and its influence on global food insecurity. My name is Jake Goshert. I’m the moderator for this briefing.
As a reminder, the briefing is on the record, and we will post a transcript of the briefing on our website at fpc.state.gov later today. For the journalists joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself in the chat window with your name, your outlet, and your country.
We do have two briefers today. The first briefer will be NOAA chief scientist Dr. Sarah Kapnick, who will be followed by the State Department’s Special Envoy for Global Food Insecurity Dr. Cary Fowler. Following their remarks, I will open the floor to questions both in the room and on Zoom.
And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Kapnick.
MS KAPNICK: Thank you for having us. I work for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce. NOAA is the leading source of information for all aspects relating to El Niño, from issuing the official U.S. Government outlook of El Niño and forecasting and warning about the climate and weather extremes associated with it. We also monitor all of El Niño’s ongoing developments and do the cutting-edge research on the El Niño southern oscillation to help scientists understand how it works and how it may change in a warming world.
Today, I am here because we have provided the official U.S. Government outlook of El Niño. It is issued the second Thursday of every month, and it’s provided by NOAA’s National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. The most recent official ENSO outlook by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center came out today. At this time, NOAA continued its El Niño advisory, which is the first issue – which we first issued in June, declaring an El Niño to be present. An El Niño adversary is issued when El Niño conditions are observed and they’re also expected to continue.
The July 2023 ENSO outlook gives over a 90 percent chance of El Niño persisting into the Northern Hemisphere winter. The range of possibilities towards the end of the year include an 81 percent chance of at least a moderate strength event. This is defined by a seasonal El Niño 3.4 index value of at least one degree Celsius of warmth with around a 50 percent chance of a strong El Niño, which is about 1.5 degrees Celsius. There’s also a 20 percent chance right now that this El Niño will reach the historically strong levels of the 1997-1998 and 2015-2016 events.
A historic El Niño event is defined at least five consecutive three-month periods with ocean temperatures of at least 0.5 degrees Celsius above average in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. There still remains a 3 to 7 percent chance that an El Niño will not reach this threshold.
The July outlook that we put out today is an extremely important one, because compared to outlooks made earlier in the year, June and July – June and then into July right now have the highest – higher prediction accuracy for the evolution of El Niño into the coming months. While El Niño’s influence on U.S. climate patterns is not as strong in summer and autumn, winter, it is still associated often with average precipitation increases in the Gulf Coast and below average precipitation across the northern tier – contiguous United States.
Around the world, we also see above-average precipitation values often in central and eastern Pacific, the Greater Horn of Africa, coastal western South America, southern tiers of the U.S., central Asia, and southern Brazil and Uruguay. We often see in past events below average precipitation across the maritime continent in the western Pacific, Australia, parts of India with below average Indian monsoon levels, Africa Sahel, northern South America, Caribbean, and southern Central America, as well as southern Africa.
However, I want to make clear that that does not guarantee that that is what is going to happen. These are the averages that have happened in previous El Niños, but it’s really important that we are first forecasting the El Niño and then we are watching what the impacts will be.
In addition to the El Niño outlook that we put out, I also want to comment that we also put out our understanding of June. We reported today that June was the hottest on record, 0.13 degrees more than the previous record in June of 2020, at a temperature of 1.2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This marks the 47th June in a row and the 532nd consecutive month above the 20th century average. For the rest of the year, we are looking at a likelihood that this will be one of the 10 warmest years, with 99 percent chance. It could be one of the five warmest years; there’s a 97 percent chance of that. And the likelihood of this being the warmest year on record, it’s a 20 percent chance at this point in time.
So when we have the El Niño developing, the warmth from the ocean, there are impacts around the world that we should be watching out for, in addition to this background of extreme warmth around the world that we are also seeing. Thank you.
MR FOWLER: Thank you. It’s really an absolute pleasure for me and for the State Department to be collaborating with NOAA and Dr. Kapnick. I will tell you that we’re in close collaboration. We communicate frequently. And as you heard from her rather sobering report, we have a lot to talk about.
Typically with an El Niño you will see global reductions in economic growth and country-level impacts that can actually persist for years. You also typically see global declines in production of some of the major staple crops: wheat, rice, maize. Sometimes you’ll see a slight increase in soybean production, but the decreases globally speaking are of the rice, wheat, and maize can be anywhere from fairly marginal to up to 4.5 percent, which would be quite an event.
The El Niño events will – don’t have an impact on crop yields everywhere, on every hectare or land in the world, but on a quarter to a third of land, they do. 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.
This is important sort of historically. I can remember in the early ’70s when the failure of the anchovy crop there, which by the way was a main ingredient in animal feeds and fish meal, was one of the factors that started the dominos to fall and led to higher grain prices and eventually to the global food crisis that we saw in the early ’70s.
We have now fairly low global stockpiles of grain by historical standards. We also have, of course, the invasion and the war in Ukraine, which was one of the five top exporters of corn, of wheat, of sunflower, barley, which – and it’s affected those export markets tremendously, much of which was going to the Near East and to Africa. And you could expect in this kind of situation that with global stockpiles at low levels you would see more price volatility and see regional and local shortfalls. These could be in our future. From a food security perspective, I’m more – most concerned – and we’re keeping a particularly close, watchful eye on Southern Africa, on Central America, and Southeast Asia.
El Niño is also correlated, as a number of studies have indicated, with an uptick in conflict. It’s a threat multiplier, according to one study, doubling the chances of conflict in Africa and playing a significant role in over 20 percent of the conflicts there since 1950. Warmer, drier weather in the tropics reduces economic output. It affects individual productivity. And it, of course, intensifies the competition for scarce resources, especially where you have situations of ethnic fractionalization and inequality.
Droughts, particularly those that persist over a multiyear period – three years or more – are very highly or more correlated with conflict and with food insecurity problems then otherwise. Floods, which you also see in some areas in El Niño years, are typically associated with much or rapid onset of conflicts and – that are much more confined in their area of impact.
So everything I’ve said so far is not to say that these things aren’t going to happen, that it’s guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it’s fair to say that the odds have probably risen for additional food insecurity and conflict-related issues.
What are we doing about it? Well, we can’t change the weather overnight, but the State Department has been the catalyst for a number of programs, which I think are directly related to how the world is going to be responding to this El Niño and future El Niños. We have started a program we’re calling the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils and that’s focused on Africa, where we’re looking at the most nutritious crops for – that are traditional and indigenous crops in Africa and looking at how they will do in a climate-changed world so that we can make smart investments in the future for promoting the production of these nutritious crops that are also climate-adapted.
We have – under the Feed the Future program at U.S. Agency for International Development have put up a multi-country program in Africa that’s bringing drought-tolerant maize, for example, to millions of farms in Southern Africa, probably just in time.
And finally, I would just say that as I mentioned at the top, we’ll certainly be monitoring this situation, working closely with NOAA, with the Global Water Security Center, and others.
I think that’s where I’ll end it, and we’ll be happy to take some questions.
MODERATOR: Excellent. Thank you both for those remarks. We’d like to open it up for questions. As a reminder for journalists joining us via Zoom, please make sure your screen name includes your name, your outlet, your country. And to ask a question, click on the raised icon at the bottom of your screen to indicate you have a question. But we’ll start with questioners from the room. I will note we no longer use a handheld mike; we have mikes in the ceiling. So when I call on you, you don’t need to wait. Just be sure to identify yourself and your outlet. So we’ll go to Alejandra.
QUESTION: Okay. My name is – thank you for doing this. My name is Alejandra from EFE news agency. My question is: Can you talk a little bit more – you said you’re concerned – about the situation in Central America? So if you could talk a little bit more about which crops in particular are being affected and what specific water conditions are influencing that. Thank you so much.
MR FOWLER: Do you want to talk about the water, and I can talk about the crops, or – okay.
Well, I think the probability has obviously risen for hotter and drier weather in Central America. We – there are a number of factors that went into my saying that we were concerned about – in particular about Central America, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and I could even add to it South Asia.
Part of it is is simply looking at the historical El Niño patterns and what they’ve – what kind of weather conditions that they’ve created. We know that in terms of crops that the effect is quite – can be quite pronounced on maize, a key crop in Central America; another reason why I would be concerned about Central America.
And finally, another reason which typically gets overlooked is the problem that we’ve had in recent – well, the last year or two with fertilizer applications. As you probably know, last year was a year in which we had scarcity of some types of fertilizer and very high prices. Those prices have continued to be high in local currency terms. And in particular, I’ve been looking at the – at potash fertilizers. That’s not the fertilizer that a lot of people look at. And potash, however, is a fertilizer that’s bankable in the sense that farmers can apply it, it will stick around in the soil for a while. Farmers will typically apply it when the prices are good, and not apply it when they’re high.
What does potash do? Well, it doesn’t give you immediate boost in yields, but what it does do is it gives the plant more stamina to deal with environmental conditions. So if you have tough environmental conditions such as is produced in an El Niño, and you’ve gone multiple years without applying sufficient rates of potash, then you make yourself more vulnerable. And the three regions that I mentioned are all regions where we believe that there has been under-application of this particular kind of fertilizer.
MS KAPNICK: Only thing to add is that in this region we’re seeing with the ocean temperatures that are increased right now that there is increased temperatures in the region as well. And so I think from our discussions on many of this right now, it’s a question also of precipitation: Will it offset some of that with the increased warmth that we’re seeing at the moment?
MODERATOR: (Inaudible) Jihan.
QUESTION: Do I just start?
MODERATOR: Yes. There is no microphone anymore.
QUESTION: Okay. What are the linkages between food insecurity – this is not the first time this has been discussed – and other problems, such as a rise in violence, which – and migration? Has there been studies on your guys’ part analyzing this possible result?
MR FOWLER: Oh yes, there have been quite a few academic studies, and they’re easy to find. Actually, there are academic studies that go back almost 2,000 years on the effect of high temperatures on the incidence of conflict, and the mediating factor there is actually food production.
But most recently we’ve seen a numbler of academic studies principally dealing with Africa and food issues there, in part caused by weather conditions – heat, drought and such. There are a number of studies which link Arab Spring, even, with high temperatures and rise of food prices and such. So you can begin to draw – there are many factors, of course, involved in conflict, and I wouldn’t want to say that it’s a straight causal line between high temperatures and conflict. But you can understand pretty easily how high temperatures affect economies, food production, food prices, et cetera, which play a big role in instigating conflict.
QUESTION: And in this particular case, what have we seen?
MR FOWLER: Well, this particular case, as Dr. Kapnick has said, is just unfolding now, so this is why I think we wanted to talk to you, in a way to give you a heads-up that this is – we – I believe that this is – this has increased the odds that we’re going to see additional food security problems this year. And if we do, if we increase those odds, then we probably should be looking at whether or not that’s a factor in increased conflict.
MODERATOR: Okay, a reminder to folks on Zoom: If you have a question, please raise your hand or type the question in the chat box. Any other questions here in the room? I see we do have one question submitted via Zoom in the chat box. I’ll go ahead and read it. This is from Mouctar Balde from Guinea. He says: “What is the package in dollar amounts to fight El Niño or prevent it in Africa, and is there any specific policy in the Sahel region or the Horn of Africa?”
MS KAPNICK: I will say that we – in the region we have been developing with – working with USAID as well as the State Department around early warning systems and developing out the information for predicting the El Niño but also using that seasonal forecast in the region to have this weather and climate information in advance. And then we are providing that on the science side, and so then there’s your side (inaudible).
MODERATOR: Okay, and then we did have one other pre-submitted question. I’ll go ahead and read that: “What does El Niño tell us about the importance of climate services?”
MS KAPNICK: So on climate services with the El Niño, this is an important case study of what to do in terms of early warning. El Niño is one of the most predictable things in terms of understanding extreme years and predicting them months in advance, and there is predictability of six months, nine months out, even longer in certain ways. And so we have advanced warning and knowledge that this is happening, that it is unfolding, that it’s forming. I gave you all the percentages for different scales of the El Niño that we may reach.
So it’s an important thing of we have the information, we’re producing this information, we have the scientific information and the different analyses of these seasonal forecasts that relate to it of precipitation and temperature, and that next step to actually take that and really realize the value of having these warnings about the physical science side is then translating that into all of the different impacts that we may see, and planning in advance food reactions to what those impacts could be from what we’ve seen historically but also what we’re starting to predict in the months and seasons to come.
And that is where this partnership with State and our discussions are so important, is making sure that we don’t hold the science and the science agencies to ourselves and that we are making sure that we’re having these discussions about what it can mean so he can also be prepared as these – as this event unfolds.
MR FOWLER: I’ll just add that as long as we are in an era where we have more and longer extremes of weather, then from a food security perspective what we have to be careful about and committed to is getting the fundamentals right. Fundamentals for food security are having healthy, fertile soils and adapted crops, adapted to both the weather and to market conditions.
Fertile soils are soils that will help plants be more resilient. They will hold the water more and therefore better enable the plants to withstand drought. And of course, if you don’t have adapted crop varieties in the field, you’re stuck.
So one of the things that the United States Government I think is quite committed to doing and we at the State Department are in partnership with the African Union and the Food and Agriculture Organization at the UN to put more attention, 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 – in those areas.
There’s no preventing an El Niño, but there is, as Dr. Kapnick said, ways of predicting what’s coming some months in advancing and for us to be giving you kind of an early heads-up about what we should be looking for in terms of food security and conflict in the coming months.
MODERATOR: Okay, and we do have one question coming in from Zoom. Alex Raufoglu from the Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan, if you could unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hey Jake, thank you so much for doing this, and I appreciate both speakers for their time. Special Envoy Fowler, to what extent are the countries in Eastern Europe stepping up here to help to mitigate some of the consequences you just laid out?
And second question, since I have you here. Russia refuses a deal, as you know, allowing the Black Sea export of Ukraine grain. Can you please explain what are the consequences, or what will be I should say, in terms of global food insecurity perspective because they chose this very time for not extending the deal? Thanks so much.
MR FOWLER: Well, as I mentioned in the opening remarks, Ukraine was – has been a breadbasket for the world. It’s been one of the top five exporters of important food grains. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has drastically affected exports from Ukraine. We are very hopeful – well, we would be overjoyed were that – were the Black Sea Grain Initiative to be extended. It’s scheduled to expire next week. We – there are indications in the media that Russia will not renew that agreement. That’s quite unfortunate. It comes just ahead of the main harvest period in Ukraine when we would hope to be getting much-needed food out into the world market.
We applaud and have worked closely with our European allies on the solidarity lanes to enable Ukraine to ship grain out of Ukraine, but through – not through the ports, which is most economical and most convenient, but over land. But long term, this is an issue that is most troubling, frankly, from a food security standpoint. We know that much of the land in Ukraine has been degraded, it’s been bombed, it’s been mined. The farmers, they are on the front lines not just of a shooting war, but a war – but a food security battle as well. And in this kind of situation, I think particularly with the onset of an El Niño, we need all of the food, such as is being produced in Ukraine, onto grain – onto the world markets where it can satisfy a growing demand.
MODERATOR: Okay. We have one last question. Go ahead and introduce yourself to the briefer.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jake. My name is Tuna Sali from Turkish Radio Television. It is the public broadcaster of Türkiye. My question is for you, Mr. Fowler. Türkiye and the United Nations worked closely and started the Black Sea Grain Initiative to let the world get millions of tons of grain and preventing global food crisis, and especially President Erdogan is trying to make sure the initiative continues by speaking to Putin. So how Black Sea Grain Initiative help the world by preventing the global food crisis, and what do you want to say about Türkiye’s effort?
MR FOWLER: Well, last year we saw almost immediately a very sharp spike in food prices when Russia invaded Ukraine and stopped ships from getting out of the ports. What I would say in regards to Türkiye’s role is it’s been essential, and we’ve counted very much on Türkiye playing this positive role. And we expect it will continue to do that and we wish it much, much success.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And seeing no other questions, I will turn it over to our briefers if they have any last thoughts they’d like to share with us. Dr. Kapnick, Dr. Fowler?
MS KAPNICK: So with an El Niño, El Niños are extreme years – naturally they happen in those extreme years. So in the past many decades, warmest years of each decade, typically an El Niño year. El Niños, as a result, also serve as an understanding of what is to come as we continue to have climate change. They are warmer years. In the next few years – they’re often the warmest years, so they also give us give us a look into what we have in store as the earth continues to warm.
As such, it reveals the vulnerabilities or it reveals some of the issues of society that we are – that we become aware of when these things happen. And so right now is a key time to be able to be collecting this information, watching what’s happening, understanding. And we will continue to advance the science to be able to have more knowledge of the physical information that we need. But then, critically, we are working together with our other groups to be able to understand what those impacts are, be – to try and be able to build some resilience and adaptation, both within this year but also the years to come.
MR FOWLER: I would just close by reminding everyone that we have more than 800 million food-insecure people in the world today. Interestingly, the amount of media attention that the global food crisis is getting has actually declined in recent months fairly substantially, so I’m really counting on you in this room and online to keep covering this issue to educate the public about the problem of global food insecurity.
Please take a look at our website on the State Department to get information, but mostly I want to tout the NOAA website. If you go to noaa.gov and you click, as I do very often, on the little temperature icon on the left, you will see the latest updates on climate, including today’s report that mentions that – describes how June was the hottest month on record for any June in the past. Also, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there’s FEWS NET, FEWS.net, which gives you an idea of how the food security situation, potential for famine is shaping up around the world.
So please continue to reach out to us. Call us; we’re available. We want to be able to explain as best we can, as best we can predict what’s happening. And I assure you that in the coming months we’re going to be working together to try to make those reports to you as substantive as possible. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you to both our briefers for giving us their time today, and to all of you, our FPC-credentialed journalists, for joining us. This ends the briefing. Thank you.