Global food prices already at record highs
While the United Nations' top food agency said earlier this month that global food prices, on average, have hit record highs, agricultural experts played down concerns about this most recent round of flooding sparking food riots like those that erupted across the developing world in 2007-2008.
"This [flooding] will increase the volatility of wheat prices, but not necessarily end in a significant increase in prices over time," said Torero. "Wheat prices are just one component of the ingredients that go into bread."
"We may still have a good production year in 2011, and we may see prices decline as we get further into the spring," said Dan Gustafson, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Washington, D.C., office. But he cautioned, "If a number of things go wrong, particularly in major exporting countries, then we could see prices going up even higher this year and that could lead to political unrest, as we saw in 2008."
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a professor of food policy and economics at Cornell University, said one critical issue is the volatility of food prices in the past eight years.
"That is going to stay with us until we get a handle on climate change -- if we ever do," Pinstrup-Andersen said. "We have to somehow change our policies to deal with the risks involved in these dramatic fluctuations in food prices."
Food prices are influenced by climate change and amplified by speculative commodity trading, he said. They are affected by "irrational expectations on the part of investors and by government policy that is focused on protecting the citizens of a particular country at the expense of the international market," he said.
Cotton prices have also been rising. Cotton reached a record $1.59 a pound in late December and settled yesterday at $1.47 during afternoon trading on the ICE Futures Exchange in New York.
For coal exports, the disaster in Australia could change pricing dynamics significantly. Asia's coal buyers have had the upper hand in recent years because of soaring demand. But with supplies constrained, said Neff, the economist at IHS Global Insight, coal companies could put pressure on buyers to accept higher prices.
"Coal companies will have more pricing power," she said.
Mining multinationals BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata and Peabody Energy, alongside a number of mid-sized domestic producers, dominate the growing Asia-Pacific export market for coal to fuel power plants and steel mills.
"The idea is that emerging Asia is going to continuously demand those resources," said Neff. "At the same time, you can only build a mine so fast, so prices may hold."
Nature's way to raise coal prices
For advocates of public policies designed to increase the cost of burning coal, higher commodity prices could be just as effective. Whether brought upon by high Asian demand or natural disasters, some say pricier coal exports could help cut carbon dioxide emissions entering the atmosphere.
In a Dec. 30, 2010, opinion piece published in the United Kingdom's Guardian, two Stanford University researchers, Frank Wolak and Richard Morse, argued that driving up world coal prices by increasing coal exports to China would force other fast-growing countries to look for cheaper and cleaner alternatives.
The current La Niña affecting Australia is not particularly strong, but it's notable in another way, said Ben Kirtman, a climate modeler at the University of Miami who studies the weather pattern and its counterpart, El Niño.
La Niña's signature is colder than normal temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, in contrast with El Niño, which brings warmer than normal temperatures to the same region.