The climate is changing the global food system


What would happen if Indonesia’s port of Tanjung Priok was hit by an earthquake, flood or tsunami, and shut down for hours, days or weeks?

A flood strong enough to wash away Indonesia’s busiest port might seem unlikely, but with the global climate changing, some analyses of recent data suggest that what used to be a 1-in-100 year extreme weather event during the 20th century is likely to increase to a 1-in-30 year event by 2040. If Indonesia’s port washes away, millions of tons of rice, corn and soybean won’t make it to millions of hungry people around the world. The same could happen in China, Europe and the United States.

The U.K.-U.S. Task Force on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience presented these and other findings at the 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting on Feb. 12. The task force was created to evaluate the ability of the global food market to withstand environmental changes and disasters, and governments’ reactions to them.

“With the way the world is warming now, extreme events and food shocks are going to get more common as time goes on,” said Joshua Elliot, a co-author of the report and researcher from the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago. “We need to better understand these elements to truly evaluate risk and production.”Corn shows the affect of drought in Texas. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

(Corn shows the affect of drought in Texas. USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

Food shocks aren’t a future threat, either. In 2007-2008, a weather-related production shock caused food prices to shoot up around the world. These food shortages occurred during the world economic crisis, where protests erupted in 61 countries and turned violent in 23.

Most of the world’s calories come from a few clusters of land in a few countries, known as the “breadbasket regions,” such as the American Midwest, South America’s southern cone and the Yangtze River valley in China. A busy port being shut down, a drought reducing corn yields or a flood inundating a crop field will mean a huge food shock to the globe. Joshua Elliot and his colleagues on the task force say that the world is bound to see these events more frequently.

In the future, food prices might go up, causing the poor in independent countries to buy cheaper food-or none at all. Countries that import the largest amounts of grain – such as those in Northern Africa and the Middle East, where soil is nutrient-poor and loss of imports means loss of access to necessary nutrition.

Joshua Elliot and Tim Benton from the UK Global Food Security Programme and the University of Leeds and Kirsty Lewis from Met Office UK have suggestions for how to adapt for the coming changes to the global food system.

“There is no silver bullet,” Benton said of the solutions given in the report. The task force outlined many mitigation techniques for the coming change in climate. Among these were better climate models to predict possible drought, flood and heat wave scenarios, and asking governments to create contingency plans when global food systems fail. The report questioned how prepared global governments are for inevitable food shortages.

Elliot’s climate model suggests that a typical year by mid century in the United States might be as dry as the worst year of The Dust Bowl, in 1936.

If governments adapt to the coming changes, production will plateau, but without adaption there would be a 13.9% loss in yield in the 2040s.

According to Benton, if current agricultural trends continue, by 2050 the agricultural sector alone will emit all CO2 emissions agreed to by the recent Paris climate agreement.

“If we want to meet the Paris agreement, we’ll have to change food.”


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