Food-System Resilience November 2021
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Food systems around the world are at increased risk of severe disruptions from various factors, including global warming, civil instability, changes to global trade, and resource shortages. At the same time, demand for food is continuing to increase worldwide. Food security is a fundamental driver of social progress and economic competitiveness, and food crises have historically contributed to wars, political revolutions, and other forms of geopolitical instability. Efforts to make food systems more resilient could drive transformation in the food, beverage, and agriculture industries.
The Committee on World Food Security (United Nations; New York, New York) defines food security as the state in which all people always have economic, physical, and social access to enough food that meets their food preferences and provides the nutrition necessary for them to live healthy, active lives. Experts expect crises that disrupt food security to become increasingly frequent and severe—even in wealthy countries. To address this problem, multiple efforts to implement food‑system-resilience approaches, which prioritize quick recovery from food‑security-disrupting crises, are under way.
Food-system-resilience efforts have thus far focused on motivating local, regional, and national governments to include food security in their resilience-planning and disaster-response-planning initiatives. Similar efforts have been under way at national and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs). For example, the Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland) Food System Resilience project "aims to provide evidence-based technical assistance and resources to help local governments more effectively prepare for and respond to crises that disrupt food security for their residents, and ensure a secure food supply for the future" (https://clf.jhsph.edu/projects/food-system-resilience).
National governments in the developed world have been including food-system resilience in their national food strategies. For example, in 2021, Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Tokyo, Japan) included food-system resilience in its sustainable-food-systems strategy, which implements the UN Sustainable Development Goals that relate to food systems. Supply-chain disruptions and food-price increases that have occurred in connection with the covid‑19 pandemic have helped motivate national governments in the developed world to increase their focus on food-system resilience. For example, the US Department of Agriculture (Washington, DC) announced in 2021 that it would invest $4 billion in food-system resilience to address supply-chain vulnerabilities that emerged during the pandemic.
In the near term, governments and NGOs will almost certainly continue to drive investment in food-system resilience, stimulating additional private investment. The solutions that emerge will have a substantial risk of being unable to address the food-system shocks that eventually occur. These shocks could be much more severe—and could come from many more sources—than planners currently anticipate. However, the future is uncertain, and changing conditions could trigger alternative outcomes. Some examples of potential events that could transform the future of food-system resilience follow:
- Emergence of a consensus definition of food-system resilience. Food-system resilience is an evolving concept. Experts are still debating foundational ideas about what constitutes resilience within a food system in the context of an overriding need to transform food systems to become more sustainable, efficient, and equitable.
- Development of data and methods for modeling the interaction of factors that affect food-system resilience. Achieving food-system resilience depends upon many intersecting factors that relate to food only indirectly. Researchers are working on ways to understand how factors such as energy prices, transportation-system disruptions, and socioeconomic conditions affect food resilience in a given area, but their current understanding is very limited.
- Persistent, severe disruptions to food production or distribution. The impacts of global warming are accelerating rapidly, and researchers have not yet gained a thorough understanding of the resulting effects on major food-producing regions. Nevertheless, researchers expect that global warming will increase the risk of multiple breadbasket failure—a situation in which intense droughts or other disasters cause steep declines in crop yields across multiple grain-producing regions simultaneously. If such failures occur, they could trigger a sudden major increase in interest in food-system resilience among policy makers and investors.
- Disruptions from new food-production technologies. Many parts of the global food system operate at very low profit margins and are capital intensive, increasing their vulnerability to runaway disruptions from new food-production technologies that displace conventional agriculture. If such disruptions start occurring, food shocks and food-price volatility could become much more common, increasing the need for food-system resilience. A similar situation has already occurred in the energy industry, where disruptions from low‑cost renewable-energy sources have contributed to price shocks and supply disruptions in coal, oil, and natural gas. At the same time, new technologies could also enhance conventional agriculture and make food systems more stable.
The global spread of industrial agriculture that occurred during the twentieth century had dramatic positive effects on food security worldwide but has never managed to provide total food security for everyone at all times. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from food insecurity today. Even in wealthy countries such as the United States, substantial percentages of the population lack access to a secure food supply. When food-system shocks occur, they tend to do the most harm to people who already are food insecure.
No easy way exists to make further dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity on the scale that occurred during the twentieth century. Instead, food production will likely become more difficult as time passes. New technologies that enhance agricultural productivity will struggle to keep pace with challenges from increasing crop‑input costs, disruptions from global warming, and similar factors. Food-system shocks will almost certainly become more common and more severe and affect many more people, including people who had never experienced food insecurity before.
At the same time that food-system shocks are becoming more likely to occur, approaches such as vertical farming and synthetic-protein production are emerging as novel solutions to the problem of food insecurity. These approaches are unlikely to address deficiencies in grain production directly, but they could help reduce the need for grain to feed livestock and thereby mitigate the future impacts of multiple breadbasket failure. Vertical farming could help cities maintain access to healthful fruit and vegetables while reducing the cities' vulnerability to food-transportation-system disruptions. However, how much these new approaches will actually be able to make food systems more resilient remains highly uncertain.