Food shocks threaten to disrupt global trade

An international study finds that crops and livestock are slightly more shock-prone than fisheries and aquaculture

Food shocks are happening more frequently around the world because of extreme weather and geopolitical crises.

These shocks, which are described as the sudden loss of food production, pose challenges for the United Nations’ sustainable development goals because they can disrupt food supplies and harm food security and human well-being.

An international study led by the University of Tasmania in Australia looked at the impact of food production losses both on land and in the sea between 1961 and 2013.

“We found that crops and livestock are slightly more shock-prone than fisheries and aquaculture,” said Richard Cottrell with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the university.

The research identified 226 food production shocks in 134 countries, while noting an increasing frequency of shocks across the globe.

The major cause was extreme weather events highlighting how vulnerable food sources are in a changing climate and the growing danger to food supplies in the future.

“The food system is so incredibly complex, we don’t realize the consequences,” said Cottrell.

“If we fish in Peru, export the product to Europe where it is re-packaged and exported again to another purchaser, then moved again, it’s really hard to be able to trace where foods are coming from.

“In central Queensland, Australia, we’ve had huge floods with a huge impact on livestock following a huge drought. It doesn’t always matter what is causing shock frequencies, it’s all about your recovery. If you don’t have those recovery periods, you can’t recover assets. You can’t feel secure in a time of hardship.”

Cottrell said that some regions, such as South Asia, are more frequently affected. With the long-term trend for shock events to happen more often, people and ecosystems can’t recover. It becomes especially difficult when factoring in political consequences.

Cottrell referred to North Korea in the mid-1990s. The country traded with the former Soviet Union but was affected by its dissolution in 1991. Relations with China fell apart and, at the same time, the North Koreans had been doing a lot of deforestation just as heavy rains came.

“Not only did they have serious economic issues, but they also suffered from the mismanagement of their local ecosystems,” said Cottrell. “The heavy rains led to thousands of people dying. Your ability to adapt depends on your vulnerability and degree of exposure.”

He said that when you look at Canada, the United States and Australia, there can be a real drought in one area and a bumper crop in another, smoothing out the shocks.

But not all countries are as fortunate. In the report, Cottrell wrote that nearly one-quarter of food and fresh water resources are accessed through trade and a number of countries depend on imports, while many others like Canada depend on export trade.

According to the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance 2017 statistics, Canada exports half of its beef and cattle, 70 percent of its soybeans, 70 percent of pork, 75 percent of wheat, 90 percent of canola and 95 percent of pulses.

More than 90 percent of Canadian farmers depend on exports while one in two jobs in crop production depend on exports and one in four jobs in food manufacturing. During the last 10 years, agriculture and agri-food exports have grown by 103 percent, boosting farm cash receipts by 46 percent.

“Trade dependency is also becoming more regionally specialized, with some major breadbaskets the sole suppliers of commodities to other nations,” wrote Cottrell.

He said the high dependence on just a handful of producers to supply food in some countries highlights future vulnerability. If shock frequencies continue to increase and major producing nations are affected, a shift to a state of reduced exports is plausible.

Extreme weather events are not the only hazard facing food production. Global warming is bringing more diseases and invasive pests.

Building resilience globally will require more proactive national food and trade policies, he said.

“What is a little bit scary is that it was being predicted 20 years ago,” said Cottrell. “But no one knew much then despite a growing body of evidence.”

He said investing in climate-smart food systems to mitigate extreme events will be increasingly important, such as increasing the diversity of plant and animal breed varieties and continued development of drought and pest-related resistance in critical crops.

Without mitigating and adapting to the effects of food shocks, goals to end hunger and protect natural ecosystems may be out of reach, he said.

The report “Food Production Shocks Across Land and Sea,” was published in Nature Sustainability.

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