Harvests of maize, rice and wheat, the three leading grain crops in the world, last year came in at levels below those of 2008, marking an overall dip in production. While both maize and rice set record production highs, the dramatic drop-off in wheat production left the total for all three lower, according to research found in Vital Signs Online, a publication of the Worldwatch Institute.

The report’s author, Richard Weil, sees the potential for production shortages coupled with population growth translating into a steady upward trend for food prices. “I don’t see how we can avoid that, with climate change, with demand for ethanol, with increasing populations, with a middle class growing in East and Southern Asia,” he says. This spells the greatest trouble for developing countries, which can less readily cope with rising commodity prices.

In a developed country, Weil explains for example, if the price of meat gets too high, people can shift their diets in other directions. Impoverished people eating at the bottom of the food chain don’t have this luxury, and have no leftover income to deal with rising prices. “The U.S. is feeding about 30 countries with its food surplus. You cut back on that and its going to have a terrible effect on all these people,” says Weil.

Even with strong harvests for corn, prices may still be under pressure due to demand. “I would say the ethanol demand is unquestionably driving increases in maize or corn prices, which affects everything because so many things use corn oil.” Preliminary data for 2011 reveal a slight recovery from last year’s shortfall. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has forecasted cereal output for 2011–12 to rise 3 percent over 2010–11.

Weil says rice harvests are strong, but notes that like all grains, it is highly dependent on annual weather conditions and rainfall totals. He adds that climate change, however, may have a tremendous detrimental impact on wheat production due to extensive drought conditions. A Stanford weather model, the report notes, examined the effects of changing weather patterns on crop yields, and found a 2.9% increase in rice production due to increased precipitation, but losses of 3.8 and 2.5% for wheat and maize respectively. Maize, wheat, and rice constitute almost two-thirds of global human dietary intake, as well as serving as resources for animal feed and industrial products.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2012