Dr Anna Moss assesses the impact of recent natural catastrophes in Australia and Russia on the risk of food security

Rising food prices between November and December 2010 caused the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Food Price Index to start the year at a new high.

The index exceeds the previous record set in 2008 when rising food prices sparked riots in around 30 countries including Egypt, Haiti and Cameroon.

The rise has been mainly driven by month-on-month increases in the prices of sugar (6.7%), cereals (6.4%) and oils (8%).

Extreme weather events have forced cereal prices to increase. Ongoing and severe flooding in Australia, which accounts for 11% of global wheat exports, will further compound an already critical situation.

In August 2010, drought and ensuing wildfires destroyed millions of hectares of wheat in Russia. The government in turn introduced a ban on grain exports.

This effectively removed 11% of global wheat exports from the international market. The same period saw devastating floods in Pakistan (the 3rd highest exporter of rice). Rice exports from the country are now expected to plummet by over a third in 2010/2011.

The current flooding in Australia is estimated to have affected around half of the cropland in Queensland which is a significant exporter of sugar, as well as wheat.

Whilst it is predicted that Australia itself may see food prices rise considerably over the coming months as a result of these losses, the most significant impact is likely to be felt overseas.

Countries where a large proportion of the population live on less than US$1 a day are particularly vulnerable to food price inflation and limited availability of food stocks.

The World Bank estimates that about 100 million people face extreme poverty due to higher food prices.

January 2011 has already seen violent clashes in Algeria linked to the rising price of basic food items (the cost of flour and food oil has doubled in recent months) and high levels of unemployment.

Factors affecting agricultural production, such as climate change, availability of land resources, water security and poverty, play a central role in determining food security risk.

With the global demand for food growing alongside the demands of a growing population, both the public and private sectors will increasingly be called upon to mitigate food security risk.

This is in order to maintain a stable social base conducive to both industrial and agricultural development.

Read our analyst's food security forecast here.

Dr Anna Moss is a environmental analyst at Maplecroft