The global food supply chain is complex, vast, and vital to human existence. For that reason, when there are disruptions to the food supply chain, it makes major headlines. These headlines come in all shapes and sizes, including disruptions due to food recalls, natural disasters, disease, and political unrest, among others. Perhaps the biggest threat to the global food supply chain is climate change, as its effects are being felt already in many regions of the world. And while these disruptions do not always put the overall supply of food at risk, they often drive up the prices of common goods. For a lot of the world’s population, small price increases on staple foods for their families can be crippling.
Climate Change and the Food Supply Chain
In a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is examined through the lens of the global food supply chain. While rising temperatures and sea levels are contributing to more extreme weather events, and I’ll touch on these later, the biggest impact that climate change could have is on the food supply. Scientists estimate that for every 1 degree the planet heats up, the yield of staple cereal crops will decline by 10 percent. The latest estimates, unless the planet can lessen its reliance on fossil fuels and cut emissions, is more than a 1 degree increase in temperatures, which could prove to be catastrophic in the long run.
In an article I read by Jason Hickel at Foreign Policy Magazine, he points to the example of the Himalayan glaciers. The glaciers are melting at a faster pace, which means that the runoff from these glaciers is not being replenished each year. The issue, beyond the melting causing rising sea levels, is the fact that half of Asia’s population relies on that fresh water for household consumption as well as agriculture. Without action, this trend will result in a lack of water for agriculture in as little as a single lifetime, which will devastate the entire region.
And that is just one example. Rising temperatures are threatening to turn once farmable land into vast wastelands where crops are unable to grow. This includes large swaths of North Africa and the Middle East, which according to some studies, could become uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future. The plains and southwest of the US are also at risk of becoming inhospitable to farming. This is clearly a scary thought given that these regions are critical areas for agriculture in the country.
Natural Disasters and the Food Supply Chain
Natural disasters and extreme weather events seem to be more common these days, which can be partially attributed to climate change. But when natural disasters strike, the food supply chain has many roadblocks to overcome. In the aftermath of a disaster, getting aid to the affected area is of utmost importance. As we’ve seen over the last few years, many areas, even when they try to stock up in advance of a storm, are sorely lacking in terms of basic supplies. Getting supplies into these areas can often be difficult, as roadways and rails are often compromised. Also, as with Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, the storm can destroy the supplies that are on hand. But the aftermath of natural disasters goes way beyond the initial rush of getting food supplies to victims.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, for example, the agriculture industry was in a state of despair. Soybeans and corn crops in North Carolina lost an estimated $1.1 billion. For these farmers, they had to decide whether to harvest early or hope the crops could weather the storm. For most farms, the crops were so heavily damaged that they could not be salvaged. The same is true of the peanut crop. While some crops turned out alright, many suffered severe water damage and began to sprout. Farmers indicated that this severely impacts the quality of their goods.
Hog farms were also hit hard in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Hog farming in North Carolina is a $2 billion industry. Hurricane Florence took direct aim at the state’s hog farming counties of Sampson and Duplin, leaving farmers scrambling to take action. First, the farmers had to evacuate their animals to higher ground to ensure they would survive the storm. But there was another major challenge ahead of farmers – waste lagoons. Waste lagoon is the pork-industry term for a large pit containing the liquid and solid waste from these animals when grown in a confined feeding operation for slaughter. A number of these pits were compromised, polluting surrounding waterways. These contaminated waterways then need to be cleaned and run the risk of contaminating other crops in the area. In all, more than 6,000 hogs perished in the storm, raising the cost of pork due to a limited supply.
A final issue with natural disasters is the tightened labor market. Again, when Hurricane Florence swept in to North Carolina, it destroyed houses that the migrant workers had rented. These workers lost their possessions and ability to work. With the flood waters, there was simply no work to be done. This equates to no paychecks. The end result was that many workers moved on to Florida to get ready for the tomato harvest. Crew leaders were lucky to get 10 to 20 workers in the field on any given day. This slows down the harvest but also leads to more spoilage and less product available for the market.
Epidemics and the Food Supply Chain
A third threat to the global food supply chain is the risk of airborne pathogens. In recent years there have been outbreaks of avian influenza and swine fever. Back in 2017, a chicken farm affiliated with Tyson Foods discovered a flock had been contaminated. The flock consisted of about 73,500 birds, which were used for breeding. As a result of the outbreak, the flock had to be destroyed. To avoid a full-on outbreak, all farms within six miles of the affected farm in Tennessee were quarantined. This included about 30 farms.
That same year, the H5N6 flu strain struck South Korea, which resulted in authorities exterminating about 17 percent of the national flock of chickens and 28 percent of ducks. These birds were not raised for meat, but rather for eggs. Considering how many traditional Korean dishes contain eggs, the average price of eggs sold by South Korean farmers soared 50 percent.
The latest epidemic to hit has been the African swine fever. This disease, which is harmless to humans, is nearly 100 percent fatal for pigs. And as of today, more than a million pigs have been culled recently as a result. This disease is potentially much more widespread than initially thought, as many farmers are hesitant to report cases. If that is true, the recent outbreak is only the tip of the iceberg. This outbreak is also causing prices on Chinese pork to skyrocket, resulting in the country calling upon its “pork reserve” to help. The shortage has also caused a recent move to breed “giant pigs” to respond to the shortage. At some farms, the pigs that are being bred are close to the size of a polar bear, which, frankly, is a frightening thought.
I would put climate change as the single biggest risk factor to the food supply chain. It is already causing problems in many areas when it comes to agricultural-friendly conditions. While climate change has an impact on natural disasters, they will continue to occur anyway. And the ongoing concerns of animal illnesses will continue to be top of mind for many people.
However, there is also the issue of the honeybee. Whether it is due to climate change or other factors, the ongoing threat of colony collapse will continue to impact the global food supply chain. Bees are likely the most important part of the food supply chain. While they may not transport or warehouse any of the crops or figure out the most efficient ways to get the crops from point A to point B, they are responsible for the crops maturing and becoming food. A continued decline in the bee population puts the world in jeopardy of a food shortage, which could be catastrophic.