A new analysis argues for the need to address food insecurity by recognizing the interconnected nature of global food systems.
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In a commentary for the journal One Earth, Franziska Gaupp, Ph.D., a research scholar at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), argues that global food insecurity is increasingly susceptible to shocks because of the interdependence of the parts that make up the global food system.
For Gaupp, shocks to the supply of food — for example, extreme weather events that may damage or destroy crops — are challenging.
However, in our increasingly interconnected, globalized world, these shocks can come from events not directly related to growing food and can have far reaching consequences.
Gaupp — who is working jointly with IIASA’s Ecosystems Services and Management and Risk and Resilience programs — points to the COVID-19 pandemic as one such shock that is not directly related to food but has had a significant effect on global food systems.
Despite the world producing more than enough food for everyone on the planet, around one-quarter of the world’s population does not have access to food that is nutritious and sufficient.
Gaupp argues that this extreme inequality will get worse as there is increased demand for food from growing, affluent populations, placing more stresses on the environment that secure food systems depend upon.
Climate change has also placed severe stress on global food systems, destroying the quality of land, increasing desertification, disrupting conventional rainfall patterns, and causing sea levels to rise.
These stresses will get worse if temperatures significantly increase, as scientists predict.
However, while these are pressing concerns for the world’s ability to produce food, the interconnected nature of global food systems means that many other factors can affect food security.
According to Gaupp, the global supply chain of food is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer companies.
Even so, interconnected sectors that depend on many others to be able to function properly increasingly make up this global chain.
This means that while the system functions within conditions understood as “normal,” efficiency may be increased for those populations who have access to these markets and the wealth to engage with them.
However, if conditions are anything other than “normal,” the interconnectedness of the global food system means that it is increasingly susceptible to shocks from events not directly related to food.
These shocks can have a bigger negative effect, as global supply chains cease to function if parts of the chain break.
In Gaupp’s words, “[t]rade networks are more interconnected and interdependent than ever, and research has shown that they can be intrinsically more fragile than if each network worked independently because they create pathways along which damaging events can spread globally and rapidly.”
Just as the global supply chain can be affected by events not directly related to food, so can major negative effects on the global supply chain affect other social, cultural, economic, or political issues.
Gaupp’s commentary highlights the relationship between the failure of wheat crops due to 2010 droughts in Russia, the Ukraine, and China, and the 2011 civil unrest in Egypt.
Other shocks that occur at the same time can also amplify individual shocks around the world.
Again, the global interconnection, and climate change, make these shocks more likely to coincide because of their increased frequency, and their ability to generate other simultaneous shocks themselves.
For Gaupp, the COVID-19 crisis has been exemplary at demonstrating the vulnerability the world faces due to interconnected food systems and the concentration in ownership of the markets that make up these systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis first, but its effects have also shaken global food systems.
According to Gaupp, “[a]lthough harvests have been successful, and food reserves are available, global food supply chain interruptions led to food shortages in some places because of lockdown measures.
“Products cannot be moved from farms to markets. Food is rotting in the fields as transport disruptions have made it impossible to move food from the farm to the consumer. At the same time, many people have lost their incomes, and food has become unaffordable to them.”
– Franziska Gaupp, Ph.D.
To respond to these challenges, Gaupp argues, it requires first understanding the way the global food system is deeply interconnected with various other systems operating across the world.
Improving the models that can predict the complex effects of significant shocks to interconnected systems may help populations avoid the worst consequences.
Having the tools to predict and understand the effects of major shocks better could also help in the development of taxes that accurately reflect the damage done by the actions of major businesses and corporations, Gaupp writes.
This intervention might, hopefully, ameliorate some of this damage and dissuade these businesses from causing the harm in the first place.
However, while recognizing the complexity of the global food system is necessary for solving global food insecurity, it is unlikely to be sufficient on its own.
Understanding the political economy of global food systems — that is, the structural effects that economic systems have on both the efficient distribution of food and the justice of this distribution, as well as the chances of governments and international institutions holding large companies to account — is also likely to be a part of the puzzle.
Overall, the paper calls for collaboration: “We need global collaboration to work toward better management of trade barriers to ensure that food value chains function even in moments of crises.”