The twin threats to food security: Pandemics and climate disruptions

What we learn from strengthening food supplies during global shocks such as the present pandemic could boost resilience to growing climate disruptions

In a world of 7.8 billion hungry people, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered global fears about food supplies. Waves of panic buying have swept supermarket shelves clean and there are concerns the virus will sicken farmers and food factory workers, while shipments will be stalled by border controls.

In Malaysia, fishermen and vegetable farmers have had to dump their produce because they have not been able to get it to their customers, citing road blocks and a lack of manpower. Fortunately, some suppliers have linked up directly with online delivery services to get the produce to buyers.

So far, global food supplies and delivery are functioning. But concerns remain and the longer the pandemic lasts, the greater the fears of disruption.

The world's food system is already highly leveraged because of globalisation, with many nations reliant on imports and efficient transport and storage. The system is vulnerable to sudden shocks, which has led to unrest in the recent past.

In 2010, a combination of droughts and severe floods in key grain growing countries, including Australia, Canada, China and Russia, caused food shortages and price spikes that fuelled political unrest in the Middle East, triggering the Arab Spring.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization's food price index for December 2010 hit an all-time high as nations scrambled for food, leaving the poorest and most vulnerable at risk of starvation. The crisis triggered food riots in the Middle East, North Africa, India and elsewhere.

Foreign Policy, in an analysis of the Food Crisis of 2010-11, blamed a range of factors, including population growth, the use of grain to fuel cars, plus soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to non-farm uses and crop-withering heat waves and melting glaciers.


While climate change was not the sole cause of the crisis, it was a threat-multiplier. "These climate-related trends seem destined to take a far greater toll in the future," the analysis concluded.

The climate threat has only increased in past decade and the pandemic serves as a wake up call for the vulnerability of global food supplies as we head for 9.7 billion people by 2050.

"The pandemic has revealed many fragilities in our food systems," said Professor Mark Howden, Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

"In food production, for example with farmers getting ill or not enough workers to pick fruit and vegetables at harvest time. In food processing, with shortages of labour, some factories closing down and enforced changes in food handling. In storage, with supplies of some foods running short in some places," he told The Straits Times.

In transport, too, because of restricted capacity, border controls and even some national trade embargoes, he said.

At the retail level, panic buying and hoarding has forced rationing by many retailers, triggered by a crisis of confidence in the wider food supply system.

Prof Howden said the pandemic has started to raise questions about the foundations that underpin our food systems and the broader economy.

"What should the balance be between competition and community? Do we need to increase food storage and self-reliance instead of relying on just-in-time systems with little buffer?

"How do we re-build trust and confidence in the food supply system so we don't repeat the panic buying? Can we develop systems that ensure more equitable distribution of food in times of need?

"Good answers to these will place us well in dealing with the forthcoming impacts of climate change on food security."

Climate change represents a fundamental threat to the food we eat. In a nutshell, more hot weather and more extreme weather events, from storms to droughts to floods, will make growing food harder and more unpredictable.

What we learn from strengthening food supplies during global shocks such a pandemic could boost resilience to growing climate disruptions.

"The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases," said a major UN report released last year on climate change and land use.

"Increased atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels can also lower the nutritional quality of crops," said the special report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, referring to the main greenhouse gas behind global warming.

Prof Howden, one of the report's authors, told The Straits Times that climate change is likely to bring both 'slow-burn' and 'fast-burn' threats to food security.

The slow burn ones are changes over decades associated with the underlying changes in production potential of crops as average temperatures and rainfall change.

"The negative impacts will likely hit hardest in the equatorial to mid-latitude regions where most developing nations are located," he said.

"Of even greater concern is the addition of more frequent and more severe 'fast burn' events such as storms, floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires on top of the stresses caused by the underlying 'slow-burn' changes."

The impacts of such 'fast-burn' climate events on food systems are likely to be similar to the effects of the pandemic with a drop in production and impacts across the processing, transport, storage and retail sectors, although the exact reasons for the disruptions might differ, he added.


For the pandemic and climate change, there are lessons and parallels, too, for health systems.

"The pandemic may lead to a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us all on a global scale and could help us get to grips with the largest public health threat of the century, the climate crisis," said Mr Arthur Wyns, a climate change researcher at the World Health Organization.

"At the WHO, we are seeing the devastating consequences of under-prepared health systems when they are faced with these increasingly regular shocks," he wrote in a recent commentary for the World Economic Forum, expressing his personal views.

Health shocks hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest, acting as poverty multipliers for families struggling to pay medical costs. At least half of the world's population does not enjoy full coverage for the most basic health services, he said.

"A first lesson we are drawing from the Covid-19 pandemic and how it relates to climate change is that well-resourced, equitable health systems with a strong and supported health workforce are essential to protect us from health security threats, including climate change."

His colleague Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head the WHO's climate change and health team in Geneva, recently spelled out the growing health risks from climate change.

"We need to protect populations against a massive number of health risks that are dependent on weather and climate conditions. The bush fires in Australia and other parts of the world are a direct threat to human health because of air pollution," he told an online forum moderated by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

"Many infectious diseases are highly sensitive to climate conditions. Dengue, malaria and others are easier to transmit in a warming climate. The same for diseases transmitted through food and water, such as cholera."

Heatwaves are another threat that can overwhelm health services. In 2003, a heatwave killed about 15,000 people in France. Last year, heatwaves in France killed about 1,500.

Heatwaves are Australia's deadliest natural hazard, with records from 1890 showing heatwaves have killed thousands more people than bushfires, floods or cyclones. With temperature records tumbling globally, heat stress is major health threat.

"If Covid-19 is the sprint to save lives, acting on climate change is the marathon," Dr Campbell-Lendrum said.


The pandemic has also shown the vital need for global cooperation.

The sheer scale of the threat has forced governments to act, to collaborate and to open their treasuries. It's exactly the sort of response climate scientists and economists have been calling for to tackle the escalating climate crisis.

With global temperatures now about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to try to limit warming to 1.5 deg C to avoid catastrophic impacts from a warmer world, says the IPCC. We have this decade to dramatically cut CO2 emissions to try to meet the 1.5 deg C target, it says.

"We need to treat a crisis like a crisis. What we are seeing is what that can actually look like. We are seeing what it looks like when whole societies mobilise their resources to deal with a crisis," Canadian author Naomi Klein told the same online briefing, referring to the pandemic.

"There is a lot of talk about returning to normal," she added. "Normal was a crisis. Normal was Australia on fire just a couple of months ago. Normal is a third mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef taking place right now.

"Normal doesn't allow you to have a safe future."

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