Farming News - Global food system can’t cope with climate change

Global food system can’t cope with climate change

14 Aug 2015

Food production shocks - where crops fail, causing food shortages and massive price spikes - are set to become more common as a result of ongoing climate change, according to a new US-UK report. Independent authors investigating the resilience of the global food system warned that the influence of commodity markets will also have a significant impact on price spikes.

Experts have warned that the food system is vulnerable to extreme weather eventsThis was seen in 2008, when droughts in bread-basket regions and rising oil prices led to a spike in the price of staple foods, leading to food insecurity and riots that toppled a number of political regimes. In the aftermath, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Development Movement expressed concern about the role of financial speculation on food commodities in increasing food price volatility.

Today, Independent researchers from the University of Leeds, Met Office and UK Global Food Security Programme amongst others have warned that the current food system is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and that the risk is growing.

Over the next 25 years, such production shocks which have serious repercussions up and down the food chain (though disproportionately affect the world’s poorest) are likely to see a threefold increase, the researchers said, and extreme weather events with serious impacts on global food production could occur as often as seven out of every ten years by the end of the century.  

Food shocks will be felt less acutely by wealthy westerners and will predominantly affect those in the Middle East, South Asia and North and Central Africa.

Researchers said there is already good evidence that extreme weather events, from intense storms to droughts and heatwaves, are happening now and increasing in frequency and severity.

The taskforce of researchers, which included physical scientists, social scientists and food industry experts, looked at the production of staple crops, including rice, wheat, maize and soybeans. They said that cereal production is set to become more variable; though it’s possible that bad years could be outweighed by bumper production in others, it is equally possible that average yields will fall unless something is done.

Commenting on Friday, Professor Tim Benton, the Global Food Security programme Champion, said, “It is likely that the effects of climate change will be felt most strongly through the increasing frequency of extreme weather events... and their impact on the production and distribution of food – something we almost take for granted.

“Action is urgently needed to understand risks better, improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks and to mitigate their impact on people.”

The taskforce called for more and better research into the likely effects of climate change and extreme weather events. They want to see a coordinated response from governments, including creating early warning systems and strategic reserves used to reduce the impact of production shocks.

Report authors also said that greater interconnectedness reduces countries’ vulnerability to local production shocks, but may perversely increase vulnerability to large shocks in distant breadbasket regions; they added that rather than stockpiling foods and grains and introducing export restrictions when crops fail, state governments should work together to understand and minimise risks.

In addition to recommending better modelling and more accurate predictions, the experts want to see better preparedness. They identified ‘pinch points’ in the food supply system; areas on which regions rely heavily for food production or distribution, the temporary loss of which could have serious ramifications.

For agriculture, there is a need to make farming more resilient to the effects of climate change, less thirsty and less polluting, whilst maintaining production levels. The researchers acknowledge that “This will require significant investment from the public and private sectors”.

The report touched on the impacts of first generation biofuels on food insecurity; researchers said that biofuel production may have exacerbated volatility in food grain prices, and that the demands of the biofuel and livestock feed industries could amplify the effects of shocks and price spikes, competing with people’s food needs.

Earlier in the year, a team of public health experts from the United States concluded that the food system in the world’s largest economy is unhealthy, inequitable, environmentally damaging and too precarious to withstand the impacts of climate change. The team, from Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health, made far-reaching recommendations, asking that US leaders frame future food policies around the concepts of the ‘Right to Food’ and agroecology.