FAO/GIEWS - Food Outlook, November 1997

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El Niño is the name given to the occasional warming of surface waters in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Sea-surface winds blow from east to west towards the equator and pile warm water in the upper ocean of the western tropical Pacific near Indonesia and the Australian continent. As a result of this warm pool of water, the atmosphere is heated and conditions favourable for precipitation occur there. A weakening of the winds is the first sign that an El Niño event is underway. This is accompanied by the accumulation of unusually warm water off the coast of Ecuador and Peru with a peak around Christmas season. The fishermen who first observed it named it "El Niño" ("the Christ Child"). La Niña refers to the "cold" equivalent of El Niño.

Since early March 1997 significant warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean has been observed and recognized as the beginning of an El Niño phenomenon. Such a phenomenon is known to occur every 2 to 7 years, with varying degrees of intensity and duration. It usually peaks around late December. An El Niño is often associated with important subsequent changes in temperatures and precipitation in several parts of the globe, which may affect agriculture and water resources either positively or negatively. The change in sea surface temperatures also affects natural conditions for marine ecosystems.

The last two El Niños occurred in 1982/83, which caused severe flooding and extensive weather-related damage in Latin America and drought in parts of Asia, and in 1991/92, which resulted in a severe drought in Southern Africa. This year’s El Niño is regarded by various experts as one of the most severe this century with record Pacific surface temperatures being observed. Various climate agencies around the world also indicate that the phenomenon could continue throughout 1997 and possibly extend into 1998. The worst effects of El Niño are expected to be felt over the next few months and well into 1998.

No precise quantitative association between the occurrence of El Niño and changes in agricultural production have been established and it is difficult to forecast precisely the impact of El Niño

in specific areas. In recent months FAO has been closely monitoring weather anomalies and assessing possible effects these may have on agricultural production in various parts of the world in order to warn about adverse situations developing and to enable preventive action.


a) Production

At the global level, cereal production in 1997 is expected to be little affected by the El Niño phenomenon, despite some reduced harvests due to adverse El Niño-related weather in several countries along the equatorial belt as well as in the southern hemisphere. However, as the most intense impact of El Niño is expected from December, greatest concern is over the threat that El Niño may pose to the crops to be planted in the coming months for harvest in 1998.

Latin America is especially prone to the effects of the El Niño phenomenon. In 1982/83 El Niño resulted in severe drought and flood damage in several countries. This year, first season crops have been affected by drought in most Central American and some Caribbean countries. On average, losses are estimated at about 15 percent compared to last year’s average crops, but they have been more severe locally. In South America, wheat planting in the southern areas was affected by a wetter than normal winter season and a significant reduction in planted area is reported in Argentina and Brazil. Wheat crop yields will, however, be largely determined by the intensity of El Niño related rains in the coming months. With respect to coarse grains, sowing of the crops for harvest in 1998 is underway. Plantings in the main producing countries are expected to drop from last year’s near record levels, but as for wheat, the final outcome will depend greatly upon the weather in the coming months.

In Asia, possible El Niño related effects over the past months include serious droughts in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand - countries known to be susceptible to the phenomenon. Other serious weather anomalies in the region, unrelated to El Niño, include severe drought in northeast China and Korea, D.P.R. and floods in Pakistan.


Undisplayed Graphic
Note: The top chart covers likely impacts of El Niño in the October to March period and the bottom chart covers impacts during April to September. D indicates drier conditions than normal, R stands for more rain than normal, and W indicates abnormally warm periods.The figure is based on two illustrations taken from the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory World Wide Web El Niño Theme Page.


These adverse weather conditions have affected some 1997 coarse grain crops and the rice crops which have still to be harvested in the coming weeks. However, despite some anticipated localized cereal shortfalls, output in 1997 for the region as a whole will still be about average. The more intense impact of the current El Niño is generally expected to occur between December 1997 and March 1998. In many countries of the region, winter wheat planting for the 1998 harvest will commence soon. In some countries, the adverse weather conditions could lead to a delay in rice planting operations resulting in a switch to early maturing but lower yielding varieties. Preliminary indications point towards reduced rice acreage in some of the southern hemisphere countries. As for the other areas susceptible to the weather-related impacts of El Niño, prospects will depend largely on weather conditions in the coming months.

In southern Africa, the outlook for the 1997 wheat crop currently being harvested is favourable. However, there is considerable concern over the possible adverse impact of El Niño on the 1998 coarse grain crop. Experts predict a strong possibility of poor rainfall for the planting season which is soon to start. Accordingly, most governments have prepared comprehensive contingency plans for mitigating the impact of a possible drought. The sub-region suffered a serious El Niño related drought in 1991/92.

b) Cereal markets

No major effects are expected from El Niño on the 1997 coarse grain crops. However, given the low level of global coarse grains stocks, markets for these grains, particularly maize, would be vulnerable if the anticipated adverse impacts of the El Niño on next year’s crops, especially in the southern hemisphere, were to materialize. The current situation is markedly different from that during the previous major El Niño event in 1982/83 in terms of the levels of supplies and prices. The 1982 coarse grain crops were a record and carryover stocks were at very high levels, i.e. at 28 percent of utilization at the end of the season. This situation provided a cushion for the sharp reduction in the 1983 output and helped containing the sharp rise in prices during the year. By contrast, next year’s ending stocks are forecast to be very low, especially for maize, and represent only 12 percent of utilization. Thus, in view of the current tight market situation, the possibility of reduced course grains output in 1998 in important producing regions as a result of El Niño is cause for concern.

Although the 1997 wheat production has been mostly unaffected by El Niño, the wheat market has been reacting nervously to weather reports and wheat prices have remained strong in recent weeks. This is mainly because of the speculative longer-term interest in wheat which continues to lend support to the market. While current indications do not support a direct El Niño-induced global wheat production shortfall scenario for next year, possible indirect effects can not be ruled out. Although the element most likely supporting wheat price in 1998/99 will again be the low level of global stocks, possible spillovers from the other commodity markets would also lend support to firmer wheat prices.

Reports about the possible impacts of El Niño have not greatly affected rice trade thus far in 1997 and prices are currently at their seasonal lows. However, until the potential effects to the 1998 production become clearer, trader speculation could drive prices up during the first part of 1998. Prices in the remainder of 1998 will largely depend on crop prospects in the major exporting and importing countries. In addition, rice prices may receive support from the other related commodity markets, depending on the reaction of those markets to the El Niño phenomenon.


World cassava production in 1997 has not been greatly affected by El Niño. This is because cassava adapts better than other crops to poor soils in marginal lands, to water stress and adverse climatic conditions and with its deep root system can tolerate dry weather for a longer period. Should, however, drought conditions persist in 1998, production in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean could be adversely affected, leading to upward pressure on prices of cassava and its products.

The most significant and visible effect of El Niño as far as the oil crops, oils and meals sectors are concerned is the sharp decline of south American fishmeal production and global export availabilities, which combined with already low levels of stocks in exporting countries, are expected to lead to firm prices for fishmeal and other high-protein meals in 1998. Moreover, lower-than-average rainfall in south east Asia is expected to reduce coconut and palm yields, and, hence, production of palm oil and lauric oils (coconut and palm kernel) during 1998, possibly leading to higher and more volatile prices for these products. The market for coconut oil is expected to be particularly affected, because of the already higher prices observed over the past two seasons. Although production if certain oilseeds in some of the countries in these two regions may also be affected, not significant effects are expected overall for the oilseeds market in the United States and Europe.

The possible impact of El Niño for coffee will result primarily from the effects of drought on the Asian crop for harvest next April and excess rainfall on the Brazilian crop which has already fueled a rise in market prices for high quality coffee. Given the already tight stock situation for cocoa, should the effect of El Niño be similar to that of 1982/83, the global cocoa shortage would become more severe, resulting in considerable price increases. No significant impact is expected on the major tea producers or exporters. The current tight supply is due to drought (unrelated to El Niño) in Kenya and Sri Lanka, and the late start of harvesting in India due to a cold spell.

For sugar, prices in 1997/98 to date have remained steady within their normal trading range but with a tendency to rise due to prospects for an unfavourable Asian crop, in some cases because of adverse weather conditions associated with El Niño. However, prices are not expected to rise sharply in 1997/98, as stocks are adequate at present. However, should stocks be drawn down more than currently anticipated and the effects of El Niño linger into the 1998/99 production season, prices can be expected to increase beyond their recent trading range.

There is little concern at the present time over the outlook for export bananas, but production of bananas and plantains for local consumption could be adversely affected by prolonged drought. Other tropical fruits for export are unlikely to be affected as this year’s crops are already largely harvested. Any effects from El Niño would likely be observed in next year’s crops. As stocks of processed citrus are large it is unlikely that possible damage to orange production in Brazil would have much of an effect on prices at this time. Some impact on the price of grapes and other horticultural products could occur should El Niño lead to problems with the California crops or with the supply of fruit and vegetables from Chile and other suppliers of off-season products to Northern Hemisphere markets.

Global supplies of cotton and jute do not appear likely to be affected, while production of some hard fibres may be expected to decline in the event of continued drought in some southern hemisphere countries. Overall it is not expected that rubber will be greatly affected.


El Niño could bring about abnormal drought conditions in some important southern hemisphere livestock producing countries. Pasture and range conditions could deteriorate as a consequence. Delayed or scarce rainfall would boost slaughtering, especially of large ruminants which depend on pasture and range land, with increased meat output in the short-run depressing producer prices. As a result, production of hides and skins could expand. Subsequently, as pasture and range conditions recover, livestock offtake will decline as stock numbers are allowed to build up again. Poultry and pig meat production will be affected primarily by developments in feed prices.


Since the mechanism underlying El Niño episodes resides in the climatic system of the tropical Pacific Ocean, some of the most striking ecological impacts involve the ecosystems of this particular ocean region. In addition, oceanic geophysical wave phenomena promote propagation of the anomalous conditions toward the eastern boundary of the ocean and then poleward along the continental boundary regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres.

The eastern Pacific Region

Being situated at the eastern end of the "equatorial wave guide" the Peru Current region located off Peru and Ecuador receives the full force of El Niño impacts. The area off the western South America is one of the major upwelling regions of the world, producing 12 to 20 percent of the world total fish landings. In such upwelling regions, nutrient-rich deep waters are brought to the illuminated surface layers (i.e. upwelled) where they are available to support photosynthesis, and thus large fish populations. The Peruvian anchoveta was, prior to a major stock collapse in conjunction with the El Niño of 1972-73, by far the largest fish harvest, with peak annual catches of over 12 million metric tons. The stock was reduced further, to its lowest level on record in conjunction with the El Niño of 1982-83, and has been recovering since, until the development of the current El Niño.

Of the various predictions that can be made about the impact on fish availabilities of the current El Niño, perhaps the most "confident" may be that the enormously important Peruvian anchoveta stock will suffer severely and may take years to recover. Other fish stocks distributed throughout the broader eastern Pacific area will also be adversely affected. There will, however, also be examples of positive impacts, i.e. the expansion in scallop fishery off Peru in following seasons.

Other Areas of the World

Through atmospheric teleconnections there will be impacts on fish populations outside of the eastern Pacific. For example, it is thought that the milder 1991 El Niño may have had strong detrimental effects on the fisheries and marine ecosystem off Namibia. However, as distance from the Pacific increases, the linkages become less clear, and this makes the task of separating the effects of El Niño from effects of fishing and from non-El Niño-related environmental effects more difficult. In general, unusual weather patterns may be expected in nearly all regions of the world and these may affect the complex life cycle processes of fishery resource species.


El Niño is affecting many aspects of the natural environment. Given the relatively long growing season of most forest resources, however, the effects of El Niño tend to be less dramatic on trees than on annual agricultural crops. The greatest El Niño-related threat to forests is the increased risk of wildfires, due to drought conditions. Drought can drastically increase the flammability of forest vegetation, increasing both the number of fires, the area burned and the duration of burning. Fire is particularly hazardous for dense tropical forests.

Droughts increase the risk of catastrophic fires which burn large areas of woodland, cause mass destruction and even loss of life and serve as a grim reminder of the destructive capacity of fire. These include the fires in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in 1982-1983, which resulted in the destruction of 3.6 million hectares of primary and secondary moist forest, and which are again burning in 1997, and the forest fires now burning in Brazil. There appears to be a strong correlation between El Niño years and the occurrence of major forest fires.

Less dramatic, but with significant negative effects locally, are wildfires occurring in arid and semi-arid zones. These areas, already prone to fire, are even more susceptible during El Niño years in which droughts are even more severe or prolonged than normal.

Short term climatic changes may also affect forest regeneration and the establishment and growth of man-made plantations. Stresses caused by drought can lead to forest decline and increased susceptibility to insect attack, to disease and to the increased impact of pollution on weakened trees, thus causing loss in growth or the death of trees.

Forests and trees have important roles to play in food security apart from their direct economic, social and environmental values. Forestry contributes to food security in three main ways: through the direct provision of food, through the protection of the agricultural base for food production, and through generation of employment and income. Poorer sectors of society are particularly dependent upon forests as a direct source of food, as well as fuel and various non-wood products. Forest fires in critical watershed areas may have an indirect but significant effect upon agricultural production on lands downstream. Finally, the loss of employment opportunities and income resulting from forest loss may reduce people’s ability to purchase food. Given the link between forests and food security, the increased risk of wildfires and resulting forest damage associated with El Niño has a potential impact upon national and household food security.


FAO has been, and continues to be, actively involved in helping countries to prepare for and respond to the adverse impact of El Niño.

Long-term Prevention

FAO has assisted countries in implementing long-term preventive measures against drought and flood-related events which now facilitate preparedness and response of countries affected by El Niño. Examples of such measures promoted by FAO include:

As regards long-term preventive measures in the fishery sector, FAO has been active in building international awareness on the environmentally-induced fluctuations of fish stocks and fisheries that depend on them. Member States are advised to take a precautionary approach in their fisheries management and development plans when dealing with fish stocks known to be subject to large environmentally-induced fluctuations, such as those caused by the El Niño phenomenon in the eastern tropical Pacific and, to a lesser extent, also elsewhere.

Early Warning and Forecasting

Since March 1997 FAO has intensified the monitoring of weather developments and crop prospects in all parts of the world through its Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS). The System has issued two reports on the impact of El Niño on crop production in Latin America and Asia. Current focus is on southern Africa where the 1997/98 growing season has just started. GIEWS has discussed with the WFP the possibility of launching advance emergency operations to be jointly approved by the Director-General (FAO) and the Executive Director (WFP) and of fielding FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions to southern Africa in April/May 1998, if drought conditions develop. The Systems assessments provide a lead in initiating agricultural rehabilitation activities in affected countries.

Early Rehabilitation

In the last six months, FAO has made arrangements for assessing the essential agricultural inputs needed to restore production in four countries adversely affected by El Niño. An appeal for financial assistance to implement emergency relief, short term rehabilitation and preparedness interventions will be distributed to the international donor community. With regard to the situation in Indonesia, FAO made an official offer of assistance to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry on 26 September. In the past, FAO has executed forestry projects in Indonesi a in forest fire policy, fire suppression, education and extension.

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