Sudden losses to food production (so-called food shocks) pose severe threats to global sustainability and food security. In a new study, researchers highlight the main drivers of food shocks, finding extreme weather events and geopolitics as the main culprits.

Image in public domain.

The vast majority of our food comes from crops, livestock, aquaculture, and fisheries. Researchers led by Richard Cottrell of the University of Tasmania analyzed 53 years’ worth of data from these sectors. They found that shock frequency has increased in time, both on land and on sea — while in the short run, there can be a lot of variation, the long-term trend indicates a steady growth.

“In recent decades we have become increasingly familiar with images in the media of disasters such as drought and famine around the world,” Cottrell said. “Our study confirms that food production shocks have become more frequent, posing a growing danger to global food production.”

Extreme weather events (which previous studies have shown to be exacerbated by climate change) and geopolitical crises were the dominant drivers of shocks. Over half of all shocks to crop production systems were a result of extreme weather events — especially drought. These shocks often spill from one sector to the other.

Drought, which is particularly amplified by global warming, can affect food crops, but it can also reduce fodder and food availability for livestock. For instance, in Mongolia, 2001 and 2010 had hot, droughty summers which were devastating to livestock during the wintertime.

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This is a strong reminder that shocks occurring in one food sector can create linked challenges in others, although the nature of this relationship is dynamic and difficult to predict.

Relative proportions for the
drivers indicated in the legend are shown for the crop, livestock, fisheries
and aquaculture sectors. Credits: Cottrell et al / Nature.

However, geopolitical events (such as economic decentralization in Europe or conflict in sub-Saharan Africa) also accounted for an important part of food shock events, accounting for 41% of the livestock shocks and 23% of fishery shocks. Unsustainable policy was also an important driver of shocks, as was mismanagement — especially in the case of overfishing.

“Overfishing was responsible for 45% of shocks detected in landing data, while disruptions to aquaculture production have risen faster and to a higher level than any other sector since the 1980s,” Cottrell explains.

In addition to contributing to world hunger and food insecurity, increased food shocks also give people and communities less time to recover, eroding their resilience and posing a chronic threat to many populations. We need to address the causes of these food shocks and find new ways to deal with their effects if we want to feed the world.

“This can be done through measures such as investing in climate-smart food systems, and building food reserves in import-dependent nations so they are better able to deal with the impact of disruption caused by problems such as climate change,” Cottrell concluded.

The study was published in Nature Sustainability.