Evaluating a Range of Food Supply Outcomes
Given the many moving parts to this crisis—not only geopolitical but physical—it can help to put dimensions around potential outcomes, whether they’re more favorable or less favorable. Researchers at Columbia University and their colleagues are currently conducting research to explore a range of scenarios, including a quick peace agreement, protracted stalemate, intensifying conflict, and intensifying conflict combined with global trade repercussions.
The goal is to get a sense of the potential impacts on food supplies at the country level and also on global commodity prices, using a model that incorporates global commodity inventories and production levels. For the worst-case scenario for wheat markets, as just one example, we could see wheat prices spike higher than during crises in 2007–08 and in 2010–11, when prices surged again after a brief relief period related to the global economic downturn.
Under a worst-case scenario, many countries could see wheat supply impaired by as much as 25%, presenting a major gap to be filled. Many of these nations happen to rely heavily on wheat imported from Russia and Ukraine. They also may lack the means—in terms of financial capacity—to find new trade partners that reduce this regional dependence, especially when prices are high.
Responding to an Enormous Global Challenge
What can be done to address the crisis? Reducing food waste has long been a top agenda item among key global stakeholders, particularly United Nations agencies, given that as much as 30% to 40% of food is wasted somewhere along the supply chain.
More effective policies on food waste could help, though their impact is likely to be more long-term in nature. Rising food prices, of course, will naturally provide an incentive to reduce food waste, but the heart of the matter is more persistent: supply chains are quite complex and highly interdependent, given the high level of trade globalization.
While it’s important that countries be able to produce some share of staple foods domestically, trade will always be vital. Each country has to balance the risks of domestic production with its risk of local concentration and the risks of trade, which have become painfully clear in the current crisis.
North Korea is an interesting case study. China is by far its largest trade partner, but most of North Korea’s food is produced domestically. While this model reduces the country’s external food dependence and the direct impacts of global systemic trade disruption, it also magnifies the risk of a severe weather event, such as flooding, that could hurt local food production.
There are no easy answers or choices in national food supply management: it’s a question of balancing the risks of each path of food supply and identifying ways to reduce systemic risk from import disruptions. One way to tackle this issue would be to build up a more diversified roster of trade partners, over time, for the food commodities that a country imports.
Exploring the Climate Dimensions of Global Food Supply
Food production and climate are inextricably linked, which begs the question of whether global climate change will make it riskier to concentrate food production in specific regions or countries.
Among the takeaways from Climate Change and Land, a wide-ranging report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the growing risk of extreme weather events. Droughts, high temperatures, heavy rains and other hazards will likely impair the structure of the world food supply in coming decades. The report notes regional threats such as warming compounded by drying in the Mediterranean and food-security risks in the drylands in parts of Africa, Asia and South America.
Corn production is highly concentrated in the US, with just a few states responsible for the majority of US production. A significant amount of maize is exported to global trade partners. Given that climate extremes affect sizable—and multiple—areas, highly concentrated food commodities like corn are more at risk from regional climate extremes than those such as wheat, for which production is more distributed.
The impact of the war also highlights a key risk to be managed as the world transforms its global climate policy. Part of the drive to slow climate change has involved transforming global agricultural systems to reduce, and even capture, greenhouse gas emissions. The war is a stark reminder that even as we move toward more sustainable food systems, we can’t downplay the risk of these types of disruptions.
We believe that it helps to take a broader view of our food system and how it’s interconnected with the world’s energy production systems. The world’s food supply depends on many variables: food production, transportation, energy sources, energy prices and even fertilizer prices. It’s vital to consider all these dimensions as we continue on our transition to more climate-resilient—and less climate-impactful—food sources.