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Extreme Weather and Food Shocks Go To DC

By Rob Mitchum // February 19, 2016

Recent work by a taskforce of British and American researchers, including Joshua Elliott of CI’s Center for Robust Decision-Making on Climate and Energy Policy, has highlighted the potential impact of “food shocks” caused by extreme weather. Elliott’s research has found that climate change is driving more frequent extreme events, such as droughts, turning previously “once-in-a-century” natural disasters into more common occurrences.

In a report released last year, an independent expert taskforce from the UK and USA outlined key recommendations to safeguard against threats to food supplies. Earlier this month, Elliott and some of his co-authors visited Washington, DC to directly communicate those findings, both to Congress and the broader scientific community in town for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting.

Food shocks have the potential to wreak havoc on food markets, commodity exports, and families around the world. Because distant regions are increasingly connected by global markets, the threat of extreme events occurring in different breadbaskets simultaneously is especially concerning. For example, what if severe drought in the US Midwest withers the soy and maize harvest at the same time that a record-breaking heat wave in Europe bakes the continent’s wheat crop?

At the Congressional briefing, held at the Hart Senate Office Building, the researchers offered an audience of Senate staffers policy recommendations to help prepare for a weather-related food crisis. One suggestion, Elliott said, was to use the biofuel industry, including corn-based ethanol, to buffer price fluctuations during major drought events that reduce food production.

The researchers also spent the afternoon visiting individual Senator’s offices, speaking with senior advisors about science-based climate and food policies and the importance of funding for multidisciplinary, international collaborations.

“I was really impressed by how excited and how engaged they were, they wanted to figure out things they can actually do now,” Elliott said. “It was a great experience over all, I learned a lot, and I think we created a lot of interest in these offices about food security issues in the US and globally.”

The next day, in a panel at the AAAS meeting, the same taskforce researchers discussed the impact of new research and outlined their prognosis for 2016.

Elliott presented findings from ground breaking international projects to map the effects of climate change on crops around the world, and evidence for increasing risk to global agriculture from larger and more frequent extreme events as climate changes. He also presented new work on the risks posed by a 21st century Dustbowl-like drought to key commodity crops in the US Midwest and central plains, as featured in this video produced by AAAS.

​Kirsty Lewis, Applied Climate Science Team Leader at the UK’s Met Office, discussed how our understanding of the geography of food production interacts with meteorology to compound the threats to food production in certain areas. She also commented on the seasonal forecasts and discuss the relationship between the global food system and current El Nino-driven weather patterns.

Prof. Tim Benton, Champion of the UK’s Global Food Security Programme, which coordinated the task force’s report, discussed the recommendations and the ways in which we can develop resilience against the increasing likelihood of food shocks.

“The global interconnectedness that makes countries more resilient to local production shocks makes them more vulnerable to shocks in distant ‘breadbasket’ regions,” Benton said. “Crop yields and climate data show us that the global food system is at increased risk as extreme weather events are as much as three times more likely to happen as a result of climate change by mid-century”.

Read coverage of the panel from BBC News.