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US-UK Report Warns of Food Insecurity from Extreme Weather

By Rob Mitchum // August 15, 2015

A new report from an international scientific task force on extreme weather and global food system resilience warns that more frequent droughts, heatwaves, and floods due to climate change could severely disrupt the world’s food supply. The report, co-authored by Joshua Elliott of the Computation Institute’s Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy (RDCEP), used advanced computer modeling of climate, agriculture, and other sectors to forecast the impact of extreme weather upon the global food chain and offer recommendations on how to mitigate the potential damage from future crises.

Elliott’s recent research on “once-in-a-century” food threats — which he found may become as frequent as once every decade by the 22nd century — is a prominent feature of the report’s warnings, which additionally highlight the concentration of the world’s most important crops (maize, soybeans, wheat, and rice) in very few countries, which could exacerbate the damage if extreme weather hits one or more of these regions. An increasingly global market for agricultural products offers protection against small, local food shortages, but may actually increase vulnerability for global shocks, the report also concludes.

“It is likely that the effects of climate change will be felt most strongly through the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves and floods and their impact on the production and distribution of food – something we almost take for granted,” said Professor Tim Benton of the Global Food Security program, in a news release on the report. “This study presents a plausible scenario for how the food system might be impacted by extreme weather, alongside a series of recommendations that should help policy and business plan for the future. Action is urgently needed to understand risks better, improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks and to mitigate their impact on people.”

Recommendations in the primary report include more research to understand the risks and “worst case scenarios” of future extreme weather, improved coordination between governments on how to handle such food supply shocks, improving the resilience of international markets, and adapting agriculture to expected climate change to protect crops.

In addition to the primary findings, Elliott, a research scientist with RDCEP and CI fellow, co-authored “Annex A” of the report, which focused on Climate and Global Food Production Shocks. Elliott and his co-authors studied the relationship between weather and historical food production shocks (such as the “Dust Bowl” drought of the 1930s), then used crop-climate models to simulate present-day or near-future extreme events.

The report highlights the extreme concentration of certain globally-important crops. For example, almost 60% of the world’s maize is grown in the United States and China. For soybeans, 80% of the global supply is farmed in just three countries: the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina. A severe drought in any of these countries, even if it only decreases crop production by 10%, would likely have dramatic consequences for the rest of the world. But Elliott and his co-authors stress that high-resolution climate model runs are needed to better quantify the risk of extreme events and food shocks.

For more on the report, see news stories in ScienceThe Guardian, and BBC.

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