The world’s food supply is on a dangerous path, according to a sweeping new study published in Nature Sustainability.
The international team of researchers outlines three bad things happening simultaneously: Food shocks are coming more frequently, thanks in part to climate change; the food system has become more susceptible to disruptions amid globalization; and the cumulative impact of recent shocks has eroded people’s ability to prepare for the next one.
Food shocks are already driving a global spike in hunger. In 2016, the number of undernourished people climbed to 815 million from 777 million, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
The researchers analyzed decades of data in yesterday’s study to find that the trend is growing. All food sectors and all regions have experienced more frequent food shocks since the 1960s and ’70s, they found.
Extreme weather looms as a huge problem, causing about half the shocks to crops and one-quarter of the livestock shocks. Along with climate change, the causes researchers analyzed were conflict, economic upheavals and mismanagement, like overfishing.
Climate extremes have hit hardest in South Asia, where nearly all crop and livestock losses were driven by drought and floods.
Meanwhile, since the early 1990s, shocks have increasingly rippled across sectors and lingered for years—a consequence of food systems becoming more interconnected, the researchers write.
For instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union immediately changed the Eastern European food system by removing subsidies as well as a big export market. But some impacts lagged: North Korea left fallow fields that would have otherwise grown food for the Soviets—exacerbating the flooding that would come years later, causing a famine that would kill some 200,000 people, the researchers wrote.
As food shocks come more often, people have less time to establish coping strategies, like accumulating assets that could be sold during the next turndown, the researchers write.
If the pace of food shocks continues to quicken, the researchers write, the pain would mostly hit developing countries that depend on food imports.
For instance, some West African countries import 96 percent of their rice from Thailand alone. If supplies tighten, rich countries could still afford to import rice while poor countries would have few options for replacing the lost food.
“Globalised trade and the dependence of many countries on food imports mean that food shocks are a global problem, and the international community faces a significant challenge to build resilience,” lead author Richard Cottrell said in a statement.
“This can be done through measures such as investing in climate-smart food systems, and building food reserves in import-dependent nations so they are better able to deal with the impact of disruption caused by problems such as climate change,” said Cottrell, a researcher at the University of Tasmania.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.