Rising water demand will be the number one threat to food security in the next 20 years, closely followed by heat waves, droughts, income inequality and political instability, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder that calls for increased cooperation. To build a more resilient global food supply.
The report, published today in one landIt comes as global hunger levels in 2021 surpassed the previous record set in 2020, and acute food insecurity in many countries may continue to worsen this year, according to the United Nations and the World Bank.
These urgent threats are not new: the effects of political conflict and the worsening environmental impacts of climate change have already been measured and studied around the world. However, the new study finds that increased collaboration between these areas of research can not only strengthen global food security in the face of any of these threats, but also strengthen it against them all.
We give strong support to the idea of building more flexible diets in general, rather than trying to deal with individual issues here and there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a climate, environmental or political shock to the system – if you have resilient systems, they will be able to handle all different types of shocks. “
Dia Mehrabi, lead author of the study, and associate professor of environmental studies and at the Mortenson Center for Global Engineering
According to a recent analysis by the World Bank, the war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and the ongoing economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have reversed years of development gains and pushed food prices to all-time highs — working against the United Nations. The goal is to eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.
In addition, extreme events such as heat waves, floods and droughts are on the rise.
As researchers and policymakers work to develop solutions to improve the resilience of food systems, they often work in isolation — tackling one problem at a time. The new study finds a great need for increased collaboration and coordination among researchers studying specific threats to food systems, so that decision makers have comprehensive information, updated models, and relevant tools when threats emerge.
Conflict, climate and power
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019, researchers surveyed 69 global experts in various fields related to food security. They ranked 32 food security threats in terms of their impact and likelihood over the next two decades.
They find that many environmental events caused by climate change – such as unpredictable climate changes – can have the largest negative impacts on food security. Taking into account their impact and likelihood of increased water demand, droughts, heat waves and the breakdown of ecosystem services (the natural benefits we rely on every day from the ecosystems around us) ranked highest.
However, they also found that threats to food security from income inequality, global price shocks, political instability and migration have high probabilities of occurring in the next two decades, placing these threats in the top ten.
More than half of the world’s food-insecure people live in conflict-prone areas: failed states or regions with political instability, terrorism, civil unrest, or armed conflict. Migration and displacement resulting from these conflicts have been ranked among the top 5 potential threats to global food security over the next 20 years.
“Food security is not a production problem, it is a problem of distribution, access and poverty, and this is exacerbated by conflict,” Mehrabi said. “Conflict not only makes people more vulnerable, it also limits their ability to adapt.”
The conflict itself is not new either. Prior to the conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing Ethiopian Civil War, civil wars such as those in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere continued to threaten regional and global food security.
“If we had really focused on addressing conflict and extreme events when COVID happened, we would have been in a much better position,” Mehrabi said.
The researchers also asked the experts surveyed about the most prominent research priorities in these areas, and what are the 50 most important questions that scholars and policymakers should focus on.
Many diversify priority diets – as more diverse entities are usually more stable. For example, Ukraine provided 10% of global wheat exports in 2021 and 40% of wheat supply to the World Food Program – a supply that was severely affected by Russia’s attacks on the country in 2022.
Mehrabi noted that while we cannot change where agricultural land is distributed, researchers and policy makers might ask: How can countries diversify their food production, in terms of location and food production?
Researchers can also create better maps and forecasts, which can be useful for taking proactive steps to maintain food security before, during and after extreme events. Mehrabi points out that the data collection on which our maps are based has not kept pace with the advanced tools available to researchers today for forecasting, and many models are not validated by matching measurements on the ground.
“We can see that happening in our world now, conflict and climate getting worse. Trends are emerging, and experts agree this is getting worse in the future,” Mehrabi said. “How are we going to build and manage food systems that are resilient to all different types of shocks and extreme events? We need to start thinking about how we can build systems that can adapt and deal with all of them.”
University of Colorado Boulder
Mehrabi, Z.; , et al. (2022) Research priorities for global food security in light of extreme phenomena. one land. doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2022.06.008.