The hungry dystopia of climate change
It’s the year 2026. A poor monsoon season in India leads to low wheat output, which is followed by a surprise thaw and refreeze that flattens crops in the Black Sea region, and a bad Chinese wheat harvest. Russia and some other producers impose export restrictions to conserve food. Next, drought strikes the U.S., and things suddenly aren’t looking good for soy and corn, either. Then, because nothing can possibly go right, the second monsoon season fails in India. Panic ensues and households in some countries start hoarding rice! Importers start bidding up for larger orders of grains! There are more export taxes and restrictions and the cost of food increases!
That’s the worst-case scenario laid out by a new report from a U.S.-U.K. task force on food security. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t include peace, sunshine, and an end to world hunger.
Thanks to climate change, farmers are now contending with more unexpected weather than usual in recent years. Farmers have always been subject to the whims of nature, but eaters in the developed world haven’t had to worry too much about their problems: For every crop failure there was someone else with a bumper harvest. That may be about to change.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates demand for food will increase 60 percent by 2050 as the human population grows. And if climate change escalates as predicted, the task force said global food shortages could become three times more likely within a few decades.
Grain production is concentrated to a few crops in a few countries. Extreme weather events in two or more of those places would “create a multiple bread basket failure,” the report said.
“Looking ahead, we can see that the world is changing, but we are not yet in a position to understand in detail what the weather will look like, and what the events will be that impact upon people’s lives the most,” write the authors of the report. But they still gave it a shot. After analyzing historical records, the team came up with a doomsday scenario, in which Murphy’s Law rules. The result is not pretty. The people hit hardest would be those living in poor countries that import grains. People living in remote areas of poorer countries might be shielded from the effects of a global food panic, said Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, in an email. But he continued: “That said, the best evidence we have suggests that the majority of the poor — even the rural poor — spend more on food than they earn from selling it. And so if even some of the assumed food prices spikes reach rural areas, these are likely to have a net negative impact on welfare for rural households.”
Wealthy countries rely on these food systems, too. After all, U.S. exports supply more than 30 percent of the world’s rice, corn, and wheat. And even developed countries are subject to spikes in food cost. “In rich countries, where food is freely available, food price inflation was significant and the poorest suffered,” the report said in a section discussing the weather’s impacts on grain yields in the past. The result? “People trading down on food quality or quantity, and in the process spending significantly more.”
Food researchers have long cautioned that climate change will impact food availability and system stability. Burke said rising temperatures have already put pressure on crop yields in most of the tropics and many parts of the developed world, and that there is evidence we’re going to see more weather-related social problems with future climate change. The recent three-year Syrian drought, which displaced an estimated 1.5 million farmers, likely influenced the Syrian uprising in 2011. The task force also touched on the weather-influenced, multi-system failures that led to poor wheat yields in 2010 and possibly helped spark the Arab Spring.
Five years ago, erratic weather worldwide impacted the wheat harvest. In turn, Russia imposed export bans, pulling back the supply to its largest importers, including Egypt. Grain prices in the Arab world spiked alongside a rise in unemployment — just at the time when people needed bread as a cheap food source. (One Yemeni protester in particular became famous for plastic-wrapping loaves around his head to create a “bread helmet.”)
This may seem like a stretch — hitching a less sexy issue, like food security, to a more visible conflict, like the Arab Spring. But, as Burke said, “From a planning perspective — in anticipating and planning for the effects of plausible worst case weather scenarios — the likelihood of large increases in conflict cannot be ruled out.”
The task force outlined several preventive measures, including modeling to identify risks, improving how international markets function, investing in storage and domestic products, and adapting crops to withstand climate change. While bolstering self-sufficiency means less reliance on systems that could fail, there are myriad reasons why any single place can’t produce enough, or enough variety, on its own. When crops fail in one place, we need trade to deliver food from elsewhere. “Governments need to be convinced that open markets are in their interest, and incentives need to be put in place to align individual governments’ incentives with the more global good in the face of the next food crisis,” Burke said.
But even sketching out potential examples to analyze, like the one outlined by the task force, is helpful. “It’s a mode of thinking that academics in particular are not that accustomed to nor perhaps good at, mainly because the scenarios that this report looks at — tail events where a lot of things go wrong at once — are not things that show up very often in the historical record and so are hard to convincingly model,” Burke said. “Nevertheless, these possibilities are ones that the policy community needs to be ready for.”
So hide your loaves, hide your rice, and hang on. We may be in for a wild ride.