Pasta instead of beans: El Niño costs Brazil's families dear

by Nádia Pontes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 August 2016 08:00 GMT

Brazil's basic daily meal of rice and beans, usually eaten with meat and salad. TRF/Nádia Pontes

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Extreme weather has slashed Brazil's harvest of beans, a staple food, driving the price up two thirds

By Nadia Pontes

SÃO PAULO, Aug 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It has been a while since Adriana Santos and her family last ate beans at home. Like many Brazilians, Santos is struggling to buy this staple food, normally eaten with rice at least once a day across the country.

Traditionally an accessible source of protein, the price of the carioca bean, the most commonly consumed variety in Brazil, has soared as much as two thirds since September, due to extreme weather linked to a strong El Niño event.

"I can't pay 12 reais ($3.73) for a kilo of beans. I buy pasta instead, but my sons are missing beans," said Santos, a cleaner in her late 30s who lives in São Paulo.

"It is very sad that the consumer is suffering so much," said Marcelo Eduardo Lüders, president of the Brazilian Institute of Beans and Pulses (IBRAFE). "But we face a chaotic situation at the field level."

Brazil is the world's biggest producer and consumer of beans, followed by India and Myanmar, according to IBRAFE data.

Lüders said the loss of bean crops because of El Niño was alarming. From a total of 3.35 million tonnes expected this year, only around 2.6 million tonnes are set to be harvested, nearly a quarter less than forecast.

Adverse weather conditions brought by the strongest El Niño in nearly 20 years have damaged crops for all major Brazilian producers of beans, mainly in the flood-hit south.

El Niño, a cyclical weather phenomenon associated with warmer-than-average Pacific surface temperatures near the Equator, emerged in late 2015. It caused heavy rains in Brazil's south and severe drought in the northeast.

Since the middle of last year, meteorologists had warned El Niño could bring unusually wet weather to southern Latin America - warnings that proved prescient.

"The government and the producers did not truly prepare themselves for this situation. Both were sceptical," said Lüders, describing the crisis as an "announced disaster".

CLIMATE CHANGE UNCERTAINTY

Global warming will likely intensify the extreme weather impacts of El Niño, according to the latest major climate science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013.

"The warming of the planet and the oceans can increase the frequency of extreme El Niño, but science here is as yet inconclusive," said Gilvan Sampaio, a climate expert at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Further research is needed to understand the interaction better, he added.

Whatever their cause, shifting weather patterns can bring negative consequences for agriculture, ecosystems, health and air quality, as well as increasing the risk of wildfires.

Although El Niño's strongest impacts are felt around the equatorial Pacific, it can affect weather around the world by influencing high and low pressure systems, winds and precipitation.

Danielle Barros Ferreira, a meteorologist at the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET), said her agency monitors weather conditions and makes forecasts for the next three months.

INMET experts also analyse the behaviour of the oceans, which directly influence the global climate, as well as indicating the evolution of El Niño and its opposite, La Niña.

But Brazil, one of the world's biggest food producers, lacks the equipment it needs to forecast and verify the influence of climate change on crop production, Ferreira said.

A worker holds beans at a wholesale market in Sao Paulo in this January 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

LA NINA THREAT

Although the latest El Niño came to an end in May, its consequences are still reverberating on food supplies.

In Paraná state, the biggest producer of carioca beans, losses are "impressive", said Nelson Harger, an agronomist at the state agency for technical assistance and rural extension (Emater).

"The soil stayed soaked for too long - it damaged the roots. Therefore, the plant didn't get enough air to develop, and everything rotted. It was a disaster," he said.

Currently, a cooling of the Pacific waters is signalling a potential episode of La Niña, which could develop in the coming months.

"In general, La Niña years disadvantage agriculture in southern Brazil by reducing rainfall, which can occur in smaller quantities and frequency, with the possibility of some long periods without rain," Ferreira said.

Leandro Lodea, a bean producer in Mato Grosso state, hopes La Niña - if it comes - will not harm his crop as El Niño did. Here El Niño caused a strong drought.

"We normally harvest 25 bags per hectare, but this year we harvested only five bags," Lodea said.

The Ministry of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment. But IBRAFE expects bean prices to remain high and unstable until the end of the year.

In São Paulo, Santos said she had heard about El Niño on TV, but did not understand exactly what it was.

"I don't know why a kilo of beans is so expensive - I hope this is a temporary situation," she said. "How can we live without our daily rice and beans?"

($1 = 3.2168 Brazilian reais)

(Reporting by Nádia Pontes; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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