When Our Global Food System Becomes Broken

by Glen

As a scientific model it was intriguing, but the results were more troubling than anyone expected. Designed and developed by a team from the Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, the model assessed how the world’s food system would look if a business-as-usual approach was taken up until the year 2040. The findings, as presented by institute director Dr. Aled Jones, were almost apocalyptic in scope:

“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 chief culprit in all this is climate change, and it should be noted that the model’s findings would apply only if policies don’t change and we bury our collective heads in the sand. Nevertheless the possibility of food collapse in less than three decades is sobering and should serve as a call to action. It should also be added that this is but the latest of a series of scientific warnings about the sustainability of our global food systems should the status quo prevail.

When asked what this might look like, social scientists point to the 2011 Arab Spring uprising – a series of revolts that initially began as riots to complain about the high prices of food across the region. There were local causes for the escalating prices to be sure, but climate research revealed that weather events in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Argentina, the United States, and even Canada had instigated the rise in food prices that were ultimately finding their way into the Arab world. Those demonstrating in the streets for governments to lower food prices likely didn’t fully understand that their problem was global in scope.

There is a multitude of supporting evidence adding weight to Ruskin University’s discovery, including Lloyds of London, which concluded that the global food system is “under chronic pressure.” Concurring was the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which project that global agricultural production has to more than double by 2050 to have supply meet demand. Others say that the world will have to grow 70% more food within 30 years to meet demand. Is that even possible in a time of increasing climate change challenges? Ideally, yes, but practically, given the human penchant for putting things off, probably not.

As we enter an era of skyrocketing food prices, environmental catastrophes, famines, floods, and ruined harvests, how exactly we begin collectively organizing ourselves, as citizens and governments, to realign our policy priorities, food production, and consumer habit to fit with a more restrained future? Predicting food prices can be a precarious practice, but these are products requiring sun, rain, fertilizing, fallowing fields, hardier seeds, sustainable water collection and efficient harvesting – all of which depend on the cooperation and consistently of our natural environment to succeed. Now that the climate is in a state of flux, it is inevitable that food resources and their pricing will face decades of serious challenges.

In our next post we’ll consider some of the measures that must be taken by all parties if we are to not only create sustainable food supplies but a renewal of our natural world that sustains all that we do and consume.