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Climate crisis could lead to food crisis

This article was published in the Washington Post recently and was penned by Elizabeth Winkler.

A new report by Chatham House, a London-based think tank, details how climate change further threatens the global food supply. Should we be worried?

In the summer of 2010, Russia faced a severe drought, a heat wave and a series of catastrophic wildfires, destroying a third of the country’s wheat harvest. Half a year later, the Arab Spring began.

The two are connected: the Middle East and North Africa, among the most food-insecure regions in the world, rely heavily on grain imports from the Black Sea, especially Russia, one of the world’s largest wheat exporters. But the Russian government banned grain exports amid the dismal harvest, looking to protect its own food supply.

climate change

Sapped of a major supplier, countries across the two regions saw bread prices skyrocket. And while many other factors fuelled the political unrest characterized as the Arab Spring, the high cost of food fuelled the broad popular discontent that prompted a string of attempts to overthrow illiberal regimes — some successful, some violently suppressed.

The episode illustrated the fragile nature of the network the world uses to feed its approximately seven billion people. Now a new report by Chatham House, a London-based think tank, details how climate change further threatens that network, as the type of extreme weather event that knocked out the Russian harvest becomes more common.

Global food security depends on trade in just four crops: maize, wheat, rice and soybeans. The first three account for 60% of the world’s food energy intake. The fourth, soybeans, is the world’s largest source of animal protein feed, making up 65% of global protein feed supply. Their production is concentrated in a handful of exporting countries, including the US, Brazil and the Black Sea region, from which they are flowing at ever-greater volumes. Between 2000 and 2015, global food trade grew by 127% to 2.2Bt (billion metric ton)— and growth rates are projected to keep increasing.

But the movement of these crops hinges on just 14 ‘choke-point’ junctures on transport routes through which exceptional volumes of trade pass.

Such choke points have been perilously overlooked, says Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House and co-author of the report.

Trouble ahead
Imagine the following frightening-yet-plausible scenario: what if the next time Russia’s wheat harvest is devastated by drought, other major food producers are also facing struggles with severe weather and wrecked harvests? In the US, that could mean a freak flood season that wipes out inland waterways or overwhelms coastal ports.

Brazil, the world’s other heavy-hitter, accounts for 17% of global wheat, maize, rice and soybean exports. But its road network is crumbling. Extreme rainfall could knock out a major transport route. If this happened together with a US flood and a Russian drought, there would be global food shortages, riots and political instability, starvation in areas that are heavily dependent on imports, and recessions everywhere else.

The Panama Canal, linking Western and Asian markets, is one of the most critical maritime choke points: 36% of US maize exports and 49% of US soybean exports pass through it each year.

Another is the Turkish Straits, which connect Black Sea producers to global markets — including, critically, the Middle East. Seventy-seven percent of wheat exports from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan pass through these waters.

Inland waterways, roads, and railways are critical too. 60% of US agricultural products make their way from farms to ports via the 12 000-mile Inland Marine Transportation System (IMTS), which comprises a network of rivers and tributaries. Similarly, 60% of Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports rely on the Black Sea rail network — a choke point that, along with its ports, the report calls the most volatile of the 14 choke points thanks to conflict with Crimea, diplomatic tensions over Syria and Yemen and unstable trade relations with Europe.

Disruption at any of these choke points would mean trouble, but if several jammed at once, it could be disastrous.

Climate change makes such a scenario more likely. While it’s difficult to connect any specific weather event to climate change, models suggest the shifting climate is making such events more common.

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