Future shocks: how resilient is the UK food system to extreme global weather events?

Global Food Security programme Champion Tim Benton summarises specially commissioned GFS reports on the topic.

Tim Benton

Rarely a week goes by without there being news of weather records being broken.

We have recently had the hottest June recorded across four continents. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) trumpeted that in a single week in February 2185 local weather records were broken as an unmoving ridge of high pressure kept the US west coast unseasonably hot, and the east coast unseasonably cold.

In 2012, a seminal paper ‘A decade of extremes’ tied events such as heatwaves to the human influence on climate, and the incidence of extremes continues to accelerate.

Flooded fieldThinkstock/E. Sekowska
Flooding can wreck agricultural land and ruin soil. Unfortunately, more of it is forecast.

The figure below shows data from the ‘disasters database’ and shows the exponential increases in weather-related natural disasters. Associated with these trends, of course, are the mounting toll of human costs in terms of damage, displacement and death.

The extreme team

A couple of years ago, the UK’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington asked us to consider the resilience of the UK food system to weather impacts. It was a very timely request because the report was written during the wettest summer ever when the weather’s impacts on UK agriculture were obvious.

Our previous report (PDF 874KB) stimulated some considerable debate and discussion as it highlighted the growing trends in extreme weather and the way that it could impact upon agriculture – in the field and in the supply chain. Furthermore, we pointed out that the globalised food system meant events elsewhere in the globe can create impacts on our food system just as much as events in the UK. (See also our Insight: Severe Weather, PDF 1.5MB).

Diagram showing how extreme weather events can impact the food supply chainGFS
Extreme weather events can have many impacts on the food supply chain

Colleagues in the Climate Change team in the UK Foreign Office asked me to pop in and discuss the way that food, food prices and climate could interact to affect life in countries around the world. This is a topic of crucial interest given the plethora of analyses that have linked food price rises to civil unrest in unstable economies. They provided money through their Science and Innovation Network (SIN), with close involvement of Dr Jack Westwood from SIN at the UK Consulate in Chicago, to set up a working group to examine the issues in a bit more detail. (See this blog post from Jack Westwood for more on food security and climate change.)

We brought together a team from industry, policy and academia, with specialists on climate, trade, international development, the food system and the environment. Over six months and with two meetings in London and Chicago, the UK-US Taskforce developed a conceptual framework for thinking about the resilience of the global food system to extreme weather.

The risks are increasing

Firstly, we looked at the way weather impacts on food systems and asked “are the risks increasing?”  We found evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of the limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year event acting on agriculture is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. A 1-in-100 year event is about the equivalent of loss of 5-10% of the world’s calories.

Chart showing the rise of extreme weather events: storm, flood and drought/heatEM-DAT
There has been a sharp increase in extreme weather events in recent decades.

We then developed a scenario for a plausible worst case. From a climatological perspective, two years stand out in recent years for being very high impact: 1988/9 where maize and soybean was seriously affected by drought in the US mid-West, and 2002/3 when rice and wheat were affected in Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

Our plausible worst case scenario was built around both these events happening together. Given this potential for a food production shock, we then catalogued how different stakeholders in industry and different countries might respond.  From this, we could flesh out a scenario of production shocks and market and policy responses. This was then used to stimulate thinking about how the responses would lead to impacts on people through changing prices and availability of food.

From these four reports arise five key areas for action.

Understand the risks better

More research is needed to understand and quantify the risks. Our assessment is that they are non-trivial and increasing, but our knowledge of how extreme weather may be connected across the world, and hence the precise probability of multiple bread basket failures, is limited by available model simulations. Modelling limitations also constrain our ability to understand how production shocks translate into short run price impacts.

Extreme weather and resilience of the global food system

This synthesis report presents evidence that the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and that this risk is growing. Preliminary analysis suggests that the risk of multi-breadbasket failure from extreme weather will triple, going from a 1-in-100 year event to a 1-in-30 year event by 2040. A number of recommendations are made to improve resilience of the food system.

(You can view PDF documents by downloading a PDF reader.)

Download - Extreme weather and resilience of the global food system

Explore opportunities for coordinated risk management

As knowledge emerges regarding plausible worst case scenarios, it will be possible for governments, international institutions and businesses to develop contingency plans and establish early warning systems with agreed response protocols. Other opportunities include coordinated management of emergency and/or strategic reserves.

Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex A: Climate and global crop production shocks

This report presents a set of scenarios for weather-driven production shocks that are plausible in the present or near future climate. This work highlights the risks extreme weather poses to global food production, recommending further investigation into the meteorological teleconnections between major food production regions and the probability of coincident shocks in multiple breadbaskets.

(You can view PDF documents by downloading a PDF reader.)

Download - Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex A: Climate and global crop production shocks

Improve the functioning of international markets

History demonstrates that the actions of market participants in response to production losses, or the behaviours of other actors, are a crucial determinant of price impacts. Other problems that can exacerbate price spikes include low levels of stocks relative to consumption, poor transparency of market information and physical limitations on trade such as infrastructural constraints.

Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex B: Review of the responses to food production shocks

Impacts of extreme weather-related food production shocks can be heightened by protective policy responses that further amplify price volatility and market shocks. Through data analysis, literature reviews and expert interviews this report puts forward potential government and market responses to food production shocks in major crops that might create a more resilient food system.

(You can view PDF documents by downloading a PDF reader.)

Download - Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex B: Review of the responses to food production shocks

Bolster national resilience to market shocks

Governments should also consider policies to bolster national resilience to international market shocks. This is a particularly important policy agenda for import dependent developing countries with high numbers of poor food consumers, and/or high risk of political instability. The precise mix of appropriate policy measures will vary according to national context.

Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex C: Country Level Impacts of Global Grain Production Shocks

This report examines the impacts of potential extreme weather-related shocks to global grain production at a country level. Key recommendations include encouraging countries to take measures to reduce their exposure to grain production shocks, and more public-private partnerships to play a role in lessening the impact.

(You can view PDF documents by downloading a PDF reader.)

Download - Resilience taskforce sub report – Annex C: Country Level Impacts of Global Grain Production Shocks

Adapt agriculture for a changing climate

Agriculture faces a triple challenge. Productivity must be increased by reversing declines in yield growth and closing the gap between actual and attainable yields in the developing world, whilst also reducing its environmental impact. However, given the increasing risk of extreme weather, this cannot come at the expense of production resilience. Increases in productivity, sustainability and resilience to climate change are required. This will require significant investment from the public and private sectors, as well as new cross-sector collaborations.

Add your comment, and follow Tim on Twitter: @timgbenton.

About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.

4 thoughts on “Future shocks: how resilient is the UK food system to extreme global weather events?

  1. It is amazing to see the waste in the UK – I am afraid I never lost my student mentality and can never see an alcoholic drink go to waste. Any wasted bread goes to feed the chickens – is it waste – I hope not – the eggs are great.

  2. Indeed. If waste is inevitable, which sometimes it is, it should be seen as the resource it is. For me, the problem comes when we build infrastructure to utilise waste, as this itself can then act as a dis-incentive to reduce the waste in the first place, which must be the preferable option in terms of sustainability.

  3. I have seen the statement that “the world has about 2 months food supply (globally) and that a major disaster , e.g. a major volcanic erutpion, could wipe that out”.
    I cannot find a reference to that statement. are you able to corrobate or comment on that?

  4. There are currently relatively good stocks in terms of tonnes (see http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/csdb/en/)

    It is possible to convert this via a demand calculation to “days of consumption” and this is typically around 3 months’ worth.

    As stocks are held around the world, by different governments, it is unlikely that a single even would threaten them all…

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