Professor Tim Benton works on food security and the environmental challenges associated with agriculture, and is the Global Food Security Champion.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
This article was originally posted to the Global Food Security programme blog, where Tim Benton is the Champion of the programme: http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/blog/2015/08/future-shocks-how-resilient-is-uk-food-system/