Joe Knight: Extreme weather and food supply shortages

It’s a given that Obama will never agree with Putin on Ukraine nor Ahmadinejad on nuclear proliferation. There are however, some common enemies that are supposed to draw the warring nations of the earth into one corner and demand something like a “global” response. These are usually issues of health and the environment, where the impersonal forces of weather and disease conspire against us as a planet rather than a collection of political factions.

One such issue is global food supplies. An independent task force of experts from the US and the UK, presenting a report for the Global Food Security Programme, modelled the impact of upturns in extreme weather events on global stocks of four staple crops (maize, wheat, soy, and rice). Talking at the Wellcome Trust’s science and media centre on Friday, the panel concluded that the kinds of food supply shocks currently considered problematic are set to become more frequent. Given the uncertainty surrounding our best climate models and the paucity of historical data on extreme weather and food supplies, the conclusions were imprecise and tentative. The general point however was clear; 8-10% reductions in global food supplies were going to become a lot more common, with a subsequent rise in prices that could be as much as 50%.

For anyone who remembers the impact of recent, albeit slightly smaller shocks, this presents a serious global health issue. In 2011 for instance, falling stocks and higher prices hit wheat consuming regions hard, leading to hunger and social unrest amongst Middle East and Gulf states. Further, it is the world’s poorest in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, who spend a large portion of their income on food, who bear the brunt of a global price hike.

That our planet is set to change, or that this change might harm our planet’s agriculture, is perhaps nothing new. What was interesting, however, was how the panel framed this issue as one of global governance. They claimed that rational and coordinated action by national governments, supported by the latest and best in economic and scientific research could be effective in meeting the gravest problems of global food supply. This was set against some cautionary historical tales, for instance how export controls imposed by the Russian government in 2011 had actually exacerbated the global wheat crisis. Should a similar shock occur in the future, the panel seemed to suggest a worldwide political agreement not to restrict exports.

The problem however, is how effective and coherent action can be taken on global health concerns when such action cuts across existing geopolitical tensions. The global distribution of scientific expertise means that these plans must be invented and implemented by Western powers. Western leadership however is politically loaded. Many nations, understandably, are weary of any limits on their sovereignty, even if it comes as best scientific practice. Any attempt to tackle global health crises has to acknowledge these concerns. Plans that are heavy handed, or that neglect to communicate with the nations they hope to lead, will meet resistance and fail in their main goal of helping the vulnerable.

Joe Knight is an undergraduate, Wadham College, Oxford.