Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog

Food System Shock: Climate Change's Greatest Threat to Civilization

Posted: 4:00 PM GMT on April 29, 2016

The greatest threat of climate change to civilization over the next 40 years is likely to be climate change-amplified extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major global grain-producing "breadbaskets" simultaneously. A "Food System Shock" report issued in 2015 by insurance giant Lloyd’s of London outlined a plausible extreme shock to global food production that could cause rioting, terrorist attacks, civil war, mass starvation and severe losses to the global economy. Their scenario, which Lloyd's gave uncomfortably high odds of occurring--significantly higher than 0.5% per year, which works out to at least an 18% chance of occurrence in the next 40 years--goes like this:

A strong El Niño event develops in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Severe drought typical of El Niño hits India, eastern and southeastern Australia and Southeast Asia, causing the following crop losses (note that wheat, rice and corn make up over 50% of all agricultural production world-wide):

India (world's #1 rice and #7 wheat exporter): wheat -11%, rice -18%
Vietnam (world's #2 rice exporter): rice -20%
Australia (world's #3 wheat exporter): wheat -50%
Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines: rice -6% to -10%

Historic flooding hits Mississippi and Missouri rivers, reducing production of corn in the U.S. by 27%, soybeans by 19% and wheat by 7%. Nepal, Bangladesh, northeastern India and Pakistan see large crop losses due to torrential rainfall, flooding and landslides, with Pakistan losing 10% of their wheat crop.


Figure 1. Historic flooding on the Missouri River on July 30, 1993, just north of Jefferson City, Missouri. Midwest floods in 1993 caused a 33% loss in U.S. corn production. Image credit: Missouri Highway and Transportation Department.

On top of the adverse weather, global crops are attacked by two major diseases: Asian soybean rust and Ug99 wheat stem rust, which cause additional 5 - 15% crop losses in Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Pakistan and India. The extreme weather/plant disease double whammy causes global corn production to drop by 10 percent, soybeans by 11% and rice by 7%. Wheat, corn and soybean prices spike to quadruple the levels seen around 2000. Rice prices quintuple as India buys from smaller exporters following restrictions imposed by Thailand. Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. The euro weakens and the main European stock markets lose 10% of their value; the U.S. stock markets lose 5% of their value. The scenario mentions the possibility of civil war in Nigeria, famine threading to kill one million people in Bangladesh and Mali becoming a failed state. Terrorist attacks in the U.S., in combination with concerns over heightened military tensions between Russia and NATO, plus conflict between India and Pakistan, cause major stock market losses.


Figure 2. Tourists wear protective face masks as they walk along the Red Square in Moscow, Russia on Aug. 6, 2010. Moscow was shrouded by a dense smog that grounded flights at international airports and seeped into homes and offices, due to wildfires worsened by the city's most intense heat wave in its history. The heat wave and fires during the summer of 2010 killed over 55,000 people in Russia and decimated the Russian wheat crop, causing global food prices to spike. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

A historical analogue: the extreme weather of 2010
The extreme weather of the year 2010--which I speculated was Earth’s most extreme weather year since the famed “Year Without a Summer” in 1816-- showed us that multiple extreme weather events in major grain-producing areas can indeed cause dangerous shocks to the global food system. This was unexpected at the beginning of 2010, when in its January World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted higher global wheat production and lower prices for 2010 - 2011. But extreme weather began an dramatic assault on the world's grain-producing nations in the spring of 2010, when record rainfall in Canada, the world’s second-largest wheat exporter after the United States, cut Canada’s wheat harvest by 14%. As spring turned to summer, the jet stream got "stuck" in an unusual loop that kept cool air and rain-bearing low pressure systems to the north and east of Russia, bringing Pakistan their costliest floods in history and a 12% decline in their wheat production. The "stuck" jet stream pattern allowed a titanic heat wave and extraordinary drought to envelop Russia and Ukraine; Moscow's all-time heat record was equaled or exceeded five times in a two-week period. Over a thousand Russians seeking to escape the heat drowned in swimming accidents, and thousands more died from the heat and from inhaling smoke and toxic fumes from massive wild fires. In all, 55,736 people died in the heat wave--the second deadliest in recorded human history, behind the European heat wave of 2003 (77,000+ deaths). Wildfires in Russia in 2010 scorched more than 1 million hectares, 25% of crop production was lost, and economic losses reached $15 billion--1% of Russian GDP. The drought slashed the wheat harvest by 33% and damaged soils to such an extent that 10% of Russian wheat fields could not be planted in 2011. Russia--the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter accounting for roughly 14% of the global wheat trade--responded by imposing an export ban on wheat, barley, and rye, as fears of domestic price spikes or shortages increased. Neighboring Ukraine, the world's 6th largest exporter of wheat, saw a 18% decline in their wheat harvest due to extreme drought, heat, and wildfires, and cut wheat exports by 54%.


Figure 3. Tunisians carrying loaves of bread shout slogans and confront riot police during a demonstration against the country's new government in Tunis on January 18, 2011. Riot police fired tear gas and dispersed the rally. Image credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images.

The impact: wheat prices double; food riots erupt
As a result of the global extreme weather during 2010, the price of wheat more than doubled from approximately $4 per bushel in July 2010 to $8.50 - $9 in February 2011. These price increases hit the nations of the Middle East and North Africa particularly hard, since they import more food per capita than any other region of the world, due to their scarce water supplies and lack of farmable land. According to a 2013 report, "The Arab Spring and Climate Change"--issued by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center, and The Center for Climate and Security--the top nine importers of wheat are all in the Middle East; seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011, and the food price increases were identified as a major contributing cause of the societal unrest.

The Lloyd’s food shock scenario: at least 18% likely in the next 40 years?
Fortunately, many of the extreme weather events envisioned in the Lloyd's scenario did not come to pass in 2010: drought in India, drought in Australia, and record flooding in the United States. However, many historical extreme weather events have caused the type of crop losses envisioned in the Lloyd's scenario--they just haven't all hit at the same time. The main key to realizing the Lloyd's scenario is to have an extreme weather event in the U.S. that causes a major failure of the corn crop, since the U.S. accounts for 40% of global corn production and 50% of global corn exports (FAOSTAT, 2013). The U.S. has seen four extreme weather events over the past 40 years that have caused at least a 25% drop in the production of corn (this is on par with the 27% drop given in the Lloyd's scenario):

1983 (drought and economic recession caused a 49% loss in corn production)
1988 (drought caused a 31% loss in corn production)
1993 (Midwest floods caused a 33% loss in corn production)
1995 (heat waves and a corn borer infestation caused a 26% loss in corn production)

A second key to realizing the Lloyd's scenario is to have additional significant crop-destroying extreme weather events in at least two other major grain-producing areas. One good candidate would be India, since it is the world's top rice exporter. Over the past 40 years, there have been five droughts in India that have caused at least a 10% decline in India's rice crop, with the worst being the 23% drop in 2002 (the Lloyd's scenario envisioned an 18% drop in Indian rice production.) Another good candidate for a extreme weather food system shock event would be a drought in Australia, the world's #3 exporter of wheat. Australia has experienced eight droughts over the past 40 years that have caused at least a 25% loss of wheat production; the worst was in 2002, which caused a 58% decline in wheat production (the Lloyd's scenario envisioned an 50% drop in Australian wheat production.)

Now let's do some rough math. Using the past 40 years as a guideline, we'd need to see the 10% chance of a U.S. event, the 20% chance of an Australian event, and the 12% chance of an Indian event all hit in the same year. Multiplying together those probabilities gives a 0.25% chance of the Lloyd's scenario happening in a given year--something we would expect to happen only once every 400 years. One could argue that on top of all this would be needed a major crop disease outbreak--potentially making the Lloyd's scenario a 1-in-1000 year event or rarer. However, we wouldn’t need the exact locations for the non-U.S. extreme weather specified in the Lloyd’s scenario--specifically, India and Australia--to occur in order to get devastating global impacts. A serious drought in Europe, China, or South America could just as easily combine with a U.S. event to cause the impacts of the Lloyd's scenario to verify. Therefore, my rough estimate is that the Lloyd's scenario is in the 1-in-100 to 1-in-200 year probability range. A 1-in-200 year event that has a 0.5% chance of happening in a given year has an 18% chance of happening when summed up over a 40 year period: 100 - 100*(.995)^40 = 18%. Lloyds itself says the odds of a scenario like it outlines coming to pass are "significantly higher" than 1-in-200. If we assume the Lloyd's scenario has a 1% probability of happening in a given year--a 1-in-100 year event--there is a 33% chance of such an event happening at least once over a 40-year period.


Figure 4. Proportion of the total calories coming from the main four commodity crops (corn, wheat, rice and soy) by country. The U.S., China, and India are the world leaders. Major crop-damaging droughts or floods hitting all three nations simultaneously would be a major blow to the global food system. Image credit: UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience, 2015.

The Lloyd's scenario will be increasingly likely in coming decades
Unfortunately, a serious shock to the global food system will grow increasingly likely in the next few decades. According to an independent 2015 food shock study by the UK-US Task Force on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience, the odds of an extreme weather food shock capable of reducing the production of corn, soybean, wheat and rice by 5-7% will grow from 1% per year to over 3% per year by 2040. The increased vulnerability will occur due to climate change, population growth, decreasing water availability, the alarming reduction in plant-pollinating insects like bees, loss of topsoil and a shift towards more meat consumption globally. About 805 million people worldwide are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and this number will grow as the population increases from 7.3 billion now to a projected 9.6 billion by 2050--mostly in Africa and other developing regions. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that global agricultural production will need to more than double by 2050 to close the gap between food supply and demand. Water scarcity, due in part to unsustainable pumping of groundwater resources for agriculture, is accelerating at such a pace that two-thirds of the world’s population could live under water stress conditions by 2025. While an increase in heat and carbon dioxide will benefit crops in some areas, scientists believe climate change will have a net negative effect overall on crop yields and fisheries in the future. Plant diseases and insect damage are also expected to greatly increase in a warmer climate. In the four largest rice producing countries--China, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand--insects currently cause a loss of 10- 20% of the crop, and this is expected to double to 20 - 30% by 2100. These nations have 40% of the world's population, and make 60% of the world's rice. For corn, the world's four largest producers--the U.S., China, France, and Argentina--are expected to see insect pest losses double from 6% to 12%. The story is similar for wheat; pest losses are expected to double from 10% to 20% by 2100.


Figure 5. The global price of food between 1990 - January 2016, as measured by the U.N.'s FAO Food Price Index. The FAO Food Price Index is a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities. It consists of the average of price indices for Cereals, Oils and Fats, Sugar, Dairy, and Meat, weighted by the average export shares of each group. Food prices between 2002 - 2004 are given a benchmark value of "100". Thanks to the Russian drought of 2010, global food prices in early 2011 were the highest since the food crisis of 1972 - 1974. Food prices have decreased in the past few years due to good harvests, though. Image credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Lloyd's scenario is less likely than usual this year
The odds of the Lloyd's scenario coming true in 2016 are probably lower than average, fortunately, even though we just came out of a strong El Niño event like envisioned in the scenario. The current El Niño event did lead to record flooding in the Midwest U.S. in December, but NOAA's 3-month flood outlook does not call for any major flooding in the primary crop-growing areas of the U.S. this spring, thanks to a relatively meager snowpack in the Upper Midwest left by a mild winter. The 2015 El Niño did cut precipitation in India by 14% in their summer monsoon, but this led to just a 1% decline in their rice production and 7% decline in wheat; the Lloyd's scenario envisioned 18% and 11% declines in these crops, respectively (though drought continued in India as of April 2016, with over $600 million in agricultural damages so far in January - March 2016.) Food prices entering 2016 were at a ten-year low, making an extreme weather food price shock less likely than was the case in 2010, when food prices were already high. Still, I have become increasingly mistrustful of the stability of our climate in recent years. Record-warm temperatures far exceeding anything in recorded history have affected the globe over the past three months, and this record heat may lead to some incredible extreme weather events unparalleled in human memory this summer. In its April 2016 forecast, the usually reliable European model predicted a very hot summer in the grain producing areas of the Midwest United States. This forecast was even hotter than the model's April 2012 forecast for the summer of 2012, which ended up being the second hottest summer in U.S. history, with intense drought that led to crop losses exceeding $31 billion. A drought like that coupled with record drought in two other world breadbaskets could well trigger a Lloyd's scenario.


Figure 5. The northward wind speed (negative values, blue on the map, indicate southward flow) at an altitude of 300 mb in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere during July 2011 and July 1980. July of 2011 featured an unusually intense and long-lasting heat wave in the U.S., and the normally weak and irregular waves (like observed during the relatively normal July of 1980) were replaced by a strong and regular wave pattern. A similar extreme jet stream pattern was observed during the summer of 2010, when catastrophic drought in Russia led to a huge spike in global food prices. Image credit: Vladimir Petoukhov.

Extreme weather capable of triggering the Lloyd’s scenario is growing more common
If it seems like the weather in recent years has gotten crazier than you remember from 20+ years ago, you are right. As I discussed in a March 2013 post, "Are atmospheric flow patterns favorable for summer extreme weather increasing?", research published by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in German found that extreme summertime jet stream patterns had become twice as common during 2001 - 2012 compared to the previous 22 years. One of these extreme patterns occurred in the summer of 2010, leading to Russian drought that triggered the steep rise in food prices implicated in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. When the jet stream goes into one of these extreme configurations, it freezes in its tracks for weeks, resulting in an extended period of extreme heat or flooding, depending upon where the high-amplitude part of the jet stream lies. The scientists found that because human-caused global warming is causing the Arctic to heat up more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet, a unique resonance pattern capable of causing this behavior was resulting. This sort of jet stream behavior makes a serious extreme weather food shock event much more likely to occur, since extreme weather events affect multiple areas of the planet simultaneously for long periods of time.

I predict that the type of triple-whammy of extreme weather events capable of causing a food shock scenario similar in impact to the Lloyd’s scenario will increase in probability to become a 1-in-50 year event by 40 years from now--a 2% chance of happening in a given year--due to the increasingly extreme nature of the jet stream, when combined with the ongoing increase in global temperatures, drought intensity, and heavy precipitation events. This means that it is likely we will see something causing the impact of the Lloyd's scenario occur in the next 40 years--a significant disruption of the global economy, intense political turmoil, war and the threat of mass famine. The nation's top scientific research group, the National Research Council, had these words of warning in their 2012 study titled, "Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis": “expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate. The climate surprises may affect particular regions or globally integrated systems, such as grain markets, that provide for human well-being.” They further warned that such an event would "produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response." One could argue that such an event has already occurred, as a climate change-related drought was identified as a key cause of the ongoing civil war in Syria.

There is hope that we will overcome, though. The global agriculture system has shown impressive resiliency in more than meeting the demands of a growing population over the last 50 years. The December 2015 Paris Accord--the commitment by the world's nations to de-carbonize our economies--should result in long-term changes to the global food system that should make the Lloyd's scenario less likely to occur. According to an October 2015 report by the World Bank, Future of Food: Shaping A Climate-Smart Global Food System, a growing and diverse spectrum of practices called "Climate Smart Agriculture" are showing it is possible to simultaneously deliver higher agricultural productivity, greater climate resilience, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Jeff Masters
About This Author:
Jeff Masters co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. at Michigan. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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