Climate

New Research Warns Of Catastrophic Food Shortages Due To Unchecked Climate Change

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New research supported by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office and insurer Lloyd’s of London finds that, absent major changes, humanity risks a catastrophic collapse in its ability to feed itself by mid-century, due in significant part to human-caused climate change.

Last year, the United Nations’ “highly conservative” IPCC climate panel warned that humanity is risking a “breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes” on its current path of unrestricted carbon pollution. Many studies in the last 12 months have strengthened the scientific case (see this, for instance).

The new research is from the Global Resource Observatory, a project of Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) partnering with the UK government’s Foreign Office; Lloyds of London; a “coalition of leaders from business, politics and civil society”; the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries; and both the Africa and Asian Development Banks.

The GSI group does business-as-usual forecasting using system dynamics modeling — arguably the only type of modeling that treats feedbacks and time delays well enough to even approximate what is coming. GSI Director Aled Jones explains that the group “ran the model forward to the year 2040.” The results were stunning:

“The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

The “good” news: That only happens if humanity doesn’t actually do any serious planning for this outcome — and doesn’t do any serious reacting as it plays out. But homo sapiens isn’t a “brainless frog,” are we?

The GSI group also does the scenario planning underpinning a new Lloyd’s of London report “Food System Shock: The insurance impacts of acute disruption to global food supply.”

Lloyd’s notes that “we must more than double global agricultural production by 2050,” according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. The global insurer further notes, “As the pressure on our global food supply rises, so too does its vulnerability to sudden acute disruptions.” Lloyd’s cites research concluding the food problem “is further exacerbated by the growing issue of water scarcity, which is accelerating at such a pace that two-thirds of the world’s population could live under water stress conditions by 2025.” And it notes that climate change makes everything more challenging, especially because of “increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and wildfires, coupled with a rise in conditions amenable to the spread and persistence of agricultural pests and diseases.”

In the scenario Lloyd’s examines, extreme weather shocks around the world cause a 10 percent production decline in maize, 11 percent decline in soybeans, and 7 percent in both wheat and rice. The report notes, “These magnitudes are within the boundaries of historical production shocks for these crops, but the concurrent and global nature of these losses has not occurred in modern history.” It is the increased likelihood of concurrent or simultaneous disasters that makes human-caused climate change so potentially catastrophic and difficult to deal with.

Here is Lloyd’s summary of the impact of this shock:

Wheat, maize and soybean prices increase to quadruple the levels seen around 2000. Rice prices increase 500% as India starts to try to buy from smaller exporters following restrictions imposed by Thailand. Public agricultural commodity stocks increase 100% in share value, agricultural chemical stocks rise 500% and agriculture engineering supply chain stocks rise 150%. Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. The euro weakens and the main European stock markets lose 10% of their value; US stock markets follow and lose 5% of their value.

These food price hikes are in line with a 2012 Oxfam study, which projected that global warming and related extreme weather will combine to create devastating food price shocks in the coming decades, with the potential for corn prices to increase a staggering 500 percent by 2030.

As for the political impacts, those are a straightforward extension of what has already happened. As The Economist explained back in February 2011 during Arab Spring, “The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.”

So how likely is this scenario to play out? Lloyd’s of London doesn’t give a specific probability, but notes chillingly:

“What is striking about the scenario is that the probability of occurrence is estimated as significantly higher than the benchmark return period of 1:200 years applied for assessing insurers’ ability to pay claims against extreme events.”

So we can sit on our hands waiting for this scenario to play out in real life — or we can act strongly and swiftly with the foresight science gives us to 1) slash carbon pollution ASAP to minimize its chances of occurring and 2) start doing serious adaptation to minimize its impact when it does. It isn’t really that hard a choice.