How the cli­mate cri­sis could cre­ate a food cri­sis

Crop sup­ply routes could be choked off if bad weather con­tin­ues to cause trou­bles

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - EL­IZ­A­BETH WIN­KLER

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.

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 7 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 all the more com­mon.

Global food se­cu­rity de­pends on trade in just four crops: maize, wheat, rice and soy­beans. The first three ac­count for 60 per cent of the world’s food en­ergy in­take. The fourth, soy­beans, is the world’s largest source of an­i­mal pro­tein feed, mak­ing up 65 per cent of global pro­tein feed sup­ply. Their pro­duc­tion is con­cen­trated in a hand­ful of ex­port­ing coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, 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 per cent to 2.2 bil­lion met­ric tons — 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, said Rob Bai­ley, re­search di­rec­tor for en­ergy, en­vi­ron­ment and re­sources at Chatham House and coau­thor of the re­port.

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 United States, 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 per cent 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 U.S. 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: Thirty-six per cent of U.S. maize ex­ports and 49 per cent of U.S. 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 per cent of wheat ex­ports from Rus­sia, Ukraine, and Kaza­khstan pass through these wa­ters.

In­land wa­ter­ways, roads, and rail­ways are crit­i­cal too. Sixty per cent of U.S. 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 per cent 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.

For the United States, this could mean a lot more episodes like the one in Au­gust 2012, when hur­ri­cane Isaac closed ports and sus­pended barge traf­fic on parts of the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity can also cause choke point dis­rup­tions. In 2015 and 2016, ten­sions be­tween Rus­sia and Tur­key fu­elled power plays in the Turk­ish Straits, and an at­tempted in­ter­nal coup led to a tem­po­rary shut­down of the Bosporus.

And dis­rup­tion of key ar­ter­ies due to po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity can lead to a self-re­in­forc­ing cy­cle, as food short­ages breed fur­ther in­sta­bil­ity. In the Mid­dle East and North Africa, sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­ses show that food se­cu­rity is a par­tic­u­larly high in­di­ca­tor of po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. Over a third of grain im­ports for the re­gion pass through a mar­itime choke point for which there is no al­ter­nate route. But the prob­lem is wide­spread. The 2007-2008 global food cri­sis was ac­com­pa­nied by protests in 61 coun­tries and ri­ots in 23.

To make mat­ters worse, chronic un­der­in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture has weak­ened crit­i­cal net­works. Ex­treme weather and in­creased trade flows put them at risk of fail­ing. The McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute places the world’s in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment deficit — the gap be­tween fund­ing avail­able and fund­ing needed — at $250 bil­lion a year through 2040. (The United States has one of the largest deficits among G-20 coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to Chatham House.)

But even where there is in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment, gov­ern­ments of­ten fail to fac­tor in cli­mate risks: A 2016 sur­vey by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment found that, with very few ex­cep­tions, they are largely over­looked even in rich coun­tries.

“It is a glide path to a per­fect storm,” said Bai­ley.

El­iz­a­beth Win­kler wrote this for The Wash­ing­ton Post


The Dan­ish cargo ship Olivia Maersk squeezes through the fi­nal lock of the Panama Canal, which is iden­ti­fied as one of dozens of trans­porta­tion choke points around the world.

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