This blogpost has the maps and infographics from the video Strange New World, along with a few notes about where they came from and/or what they mean in relation to safe, nutritious food supplies for the world’s population, including us here in the UK.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Extreme weather conditions
The first map in the video is from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, one of their Climate Change Reanalyzer series.
In July, the Guardian published this article: Climate change denial won’t even benefit oil companies soon. It uses the same map as an attention grabber for more facts’n’stats about climate change. In summary, last summer’s heatwave is part of an inexorable global pattern.
note: As well as the threats to livestock and crops from drought, temperature is also a primary factor affecting the rate of plant development. See this article Temperature extremes: Effect on plant growth and development by Hatfield & Brusberg, part of a special ScienceDirect issue from the USDA Research and Programs on Extreme Events.
CLIMATE CHANGE: Water risk
This map is from the World Resources Institute here.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that by 2025, 1.8bn people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population in ‘water-stressed’ regions; see also this: UN Water Scarcity. The south east of England is already considered ‘water- stressed’.
If you want to have a better understanding of water challenges, I recommend Tony Allen’s Virtual Water. A tad dated (2011) as is the map above. The situation has got worse, though, not better since both were published.
Alternatively, read pp5-6 of this document, part of our briefing for GBSLEP, based on Allen’s work. (A briefing, incidentally, that they ignored despite having asked for it. In mitigation, this stuff is hard to get your head around, huge in scale . . . there’s an element in all of us telling ourselves to just ignore it all.
Notice, too, that the image which precedes the map in the video is of a dried-out lake in Bavaria, not somewhere far away like Syria (entering its second year of drought) or North China Plain (the largest agricultural production area in China, subject to both drought and flood).
RESOURCE DEPLETION: Land use over time
This graph is from this page of Our World in Data (to find it, scroll down the page). In essence, this graph is telling us that there’s little or no more land for cultivation; for the facts’n’stats on that, see this FAO Fast facts: The state of the world’s land and water resources where you can learn, among other matters, that the land available for cropping is 4.4bn hectares.
Some of the constraints on this land follow in the next three sections.
RESOURCE DEPLETION: Top soils
Rainfall has a big impact on soil erosion. This map from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) shows the areas most affected by it.
Without top soil, you ain’t got primary production. And, globally, we’re losing it at an alarming rate. Floods, drought, wind — or a combination of all three, can render land unsuitable for cropping, sometimes for years. Orchards growing top fruit can take up to a decade to recover from a flood and become productive again. (note: ‘top’ fruit is fruit grown on trees cf fruit grown near the ground, perhaps bushes or canes; think plums, apples or pears say, cf raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants.)
Here in the UK, the Climate Change Committee 2015 Progress Report stated that East Anglia has been losing top soil at a rate between one and three centimetres a year since 1850 through a combination of weather events and intensive farming.
note: Livestock can graze on lands unsuitable for crops; think Scottish Highlands, the Lakes, Pennines, Brecon Beacons here in the UK. Remember, though, dairy herds need good quality grasslands such as those found in the damp climate of the Cheshire Plain and Ireland.
RESOURCE DEPLETION: Soil nutrients
This is a 2012 image, NASA Maps How Nutrients Affect Plant Productivity, (a joint endeavour between NASA & the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
See also this brief video interview with Professor Chris Elliott about nutrients in food. (note: this interview was part of our consultation on last year’s horizon scanning project; the report Back from the Future was published in January 2018.)
“We are what we eat” is a common phrase. Many people, however, don’t stop and think that plants/crops are what they ‘eat’ too. Sure, their energy comes from the sun via photosynthesis, a trick (all or nearly all?) animals, including mammals, can’t pull off. But, like us, calories are necessary but not sufficient. Like us (indeed, all living critters), plants also need nutrients.
Soils get depleted of plant nutrients.
Within my lifetime, age-old (well, 10,000 years old) agricultural practices such as leaving fields fallow, rotation cropping, spreading animal manure or (human) “nightsoil” replenished the soils. Intensive farming, plus some of the risks associated with using dung has largely stopped those practices in many parts of the world in the last few decades.
Without intensive farming, however, there won’t be enough food for everyone. Famines will become more frequent, more widespread and more difficult to respond to. Many will starve to death.
The phrase agri-scientists use to say what needs to be done is ‘sustainable intensification”. And whatever that phrase means, it inevitably translates into different practices in different locations owing to different conditions.
RESOURCE DEPLETION: What wilderness is left
It relates to the research by James Allan at the University of Queensland; see this paper Temporally inter-comparable maps of terrestrial wilderness and the Last of the Wild published on-line in 2017. Allan and his co-authors point out in the abstract despite their importance, wilderness areas are being rapidly eroded in extent and fragmented.
They’re right. But for the purpose of this video, the reason I included it was as much to illustrate the dearth of new lands for agricultural purposes as to illustrate the rapid decline in biodiversity. (On that latter matter of biodiversity, as widely reported over the summer, evidence suggests that we’re entering the Earth’s the sixth mass extinction; see this palaeobiologists’ perspective in phys.org.)
A combination of soil loss and nutrient depletion, plus the requirement to use land for carbon sequestration (e.g. forests) lead some scientists to suggest the world will have maybe as much as a third less land available for agriculture by 2050; see the UN Global Land Outlook. It is worth remembering, too, the decelerating growth in crop yields (see the second page of this FAO document chapter Feeding the world).
RESOURCE DEPLETION: Combatting crop pathogens & anti-microbial resistance
I was unsure what the bars on the slide represented — other than lots of more people could be fed if crops weren’t damaged by pathogens. And I couldn’t get hold of Sophien Kamoun to ask him.
The slide, however, is based on a table in this Nature paper: Emerging fungal threats to animal, plant and ecosystem health which, fortuitously for us, was co-authored by Professor Sarah Gurr (who’s on our Panel of Experts). So I asked her.
Here’s what she said: “Sophien Kamoun has simply taken a table I made in the Nature paper and plotted, for the worst crop-destroying oomycetes and fungi the lowest and highest levels of disease found in these crops (despite mitigation anti-fungals and inbred R genes); e.g. with rice blast its between, say, 12% and 35% losses. I then looked at the calories per crop and extrapolated these to 2000 calories per person per day . . . ”
She also pointed me in the direction of their later article in Science (May 2018): Worldwide emergence of resistance to antifungal drugs challenges human health and food security.
A few points:
First, if you’re wondering what an ‘oomycete‘ is, it’s a fungal-like microorganism. And there are lots of ’em! One, phytopthora infestans, causes potato blight which destroyed the Irish potato crop in the mid to late-1840s which led, because of British indifference to the plight of the Irish people, to the Great Famine.
Secondly, the figures in the slide are after crop treatment as the Prof said despite mitigation anti-fungals and inbred R genes. (“R genes” is a scientist’s abbreviation for ‘plant disease resistance genes’.)
Thirdly, many people think anti-microbial resistance (AMR) is all to do with antibiotics not working on human infections. AMR is also a big issue when it comes to dealing with crop pathogens, too.
Finally, a crop pathogen, or maybe several pathogens over the same few months, could wreak mayhem for global harvests leading to hunger for many millions of people along with all the associated challenges of an adequate global response.
Another of our Panel of Experts, Professor Molly Jahn took part in a Lloyds of London Emerging Risks scenario in 2015, Food System Shock: The insurance impacts of acute disruption to global food supply, in which they explored the multiple risk of several commodity crops affected by different pathogens. Lloyds concluded that it would have, among other effects, “widespread economic, political and social impacts . . . could trigger significant claims across multiple classes of insurance, which could be compounded by the potential for food system shock and its consequences to span multiple years. The insurance industry could also be affected by impacts on investment income, and the global regulatory and business environment.”
POPULATION: Projections to 2100
Both this graph and the one following are based on the UN World Population Prospects 2015. This data is regularly updated, the latest being is 2017. (Apologies for not using the latest data but I haven’t the skills to create useful graphs from raw data without a lot of time, faff and failure.)
Even if (and it’s a big IF) the low projection for the global population is achieved, there are still major challenges in providing enough food for the world’s population, not least because of the factors outlined above.
POPULATION: Projections by region to 2100
As can be seen, the major population growth is estimated to be in Africa where the impact of climate change is likely to be felt most keenly. It’s also worth remembering that the populations currently in many parts of the world are ageing rapidly. (see the UN report World Population Ageing, 2015.)
POPULATION: Current numbers of forcibly displaced people
This infographic was retrieved from the UNHCR Figures at a Glance in November 2018. It’s worth noting that these figures are of refugees, not of all people on the move.
The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs publish a biennial International Migration Report, their latest in December 2017. Refugees are but a fraction of the estimated 258M people living in a country other than their country of birth, an increase of 49% since 2000. Unsurprisingly, in 2017, around three quarters (74%) of all international migrants were between 24 and 64 years old.
The earlier quoted FAO estimate that 1.8bn people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity within the next six years (see the section on water risk above) indicates we can expect significantly more people to be on the move. The need for a qualitatively different debate about migration is therefore urgent.
GEO-POLITICS: Control of transport routes
This map is from a 2017 Chatham House Report: Checkpoints and vulnerabilities in the global food trade.
It’s a tad worrying to contrast the authors’ summary: “Policymakers must take action immediately to mitigate the risk of severe disruption at certain ports, maritime straits, and inland transport routes, which could have devastating knock-on effects for global food security” with this statement about the Dover Strait from Dominic Raab then Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on 8th November 2018.
GEO-POLITICS: the Arctic shipping route
Every September, the Arctic sea ice hits its minimum.
NASA Earth Observatory took the image above on 19 September 2018, then superimposed on it the yellow line showing the median September ice cover 1981 to 2010.
The graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) on the right (see right if on a big screen, above if on a mobile/cell phone) shows the size of the Arctic sea ice every March since 1980 until this year, along with a line indicating the 1981-2010 average. (note: A reminder that the sea ice is at its biggest in March.)
note: You can find a version of this graph in the NSIDC July 2018 archive here but without the 1981-2000 average.
(Apologies, I can’t relocate the actual graph I screengrabbed for the video with the 1981-2010 average marked. Yup, I should have kept a record, thought I had.)
GEO-POLITICS: The Belt and Road Initiative
This map was retrieved from Wikipedia in November 2018.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese, sometimes referred to simply as the BRI, or as the New Silk Road. As well as the Wikipedia entry, this Guardian ‘explainer’ published last July is informative.
- The Mercator Institute for China Studies here. Their map here shows the BRI infrastructure network which illuminates Chinese investment across the world, including ports on the west European coast.
- Various Chatham House BRI reports and events here.
Finally, there’s the video itself. It opens with me making a statement about food imports, about which there’s info below.
And if you want to watch it now, here it is:
Near the beginning of the video, you’ll hear me saying: Four-fifths of the world population depend on food imports for their survival . . .
For the immediate short-term, this statement is true for any nation state that imports food, and most if not all do to some extent. If a place, whether nation state, region or conurbation were suddenly denied access to the global food supply system for whatever reason, there would be immediate shortages, highly likely to set off panic buying and civil unrest.
If food imports stopped for any length of time, it would soon profoundly affect the health and wellbeing of nearly all citizens regardless of how wealthy the country was. Some of the most vulnerable people, either economically and/or in terms of physical health, would be the first to feel the effects.
Take the UK, for example. We live on a densely populated group of islands, with the south east of England one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Despite about 70% of UK land being used for agriculture, much of it intensively farmed, we nonetheless import some 40% of the food we eat, more when our harvests are poor.
Harvests were poor in 2012, when it rained and rained. That year, imports went up to 50%, i.e. an increase of a whopping 25%. We don’t know yet how much the heat and drought this summer has affected harvests, but the data will show higher imports for many products. As the heatwave was across the northern hemisphere, harvests in other countries were similarly affected. There’s global competition for food, so there are and will price rises. (See this 1’46” video interview with Parveen Mehta on the subject of the global competition for food. Parveen is the Operations Director of the fresh produce wholesaler, Minor Weir and Willis.)
Could the UK be self-sufficient in food? I asked this question of Rob Lilleywhite, a scientist, an Assistant Professor at the Warwick Crop Centre and very much a quants guy. ‘Course we can, Kate! was his reply.
But, as he explained to me, it’d mean a dramatic change in our eating habits. Just for starters, if you’re someone who likes drug-foods, out goes that quintessential English cuppa, also coffee and chocolate. Self-sufficiently would also affect staple commodities. For example, even with a crop suited to parts of the UK, such as wheat, we’re dependent on imports; over a million tonnes from the EU in 2015-16. And we import much of our fresh fruit and veg from the EU.
In summary, were we forced into self-sufficiency, the situation would tempt Jamie Oliver to compile a book on 100 tasty turnip recipes.
Could we be self-sufficient quickly?
Imagine all food and agriculture imports into the UK stopped, or even delayed a few days at the ports. Or, say, for a year. Or two or three years.
At the start of a de facto blockade, it’d depend on the time of year. And how prepared the Government was to cajole, entice, force farmers to sow particular crops. Sow a field at the wrong time of year, and the crop won’t grow. Moreover, in the best of circumstances and only with some crops, it takes months from sowing to harvest. For some crops, for example, plum trees, it can take a decade or more from planting the orchard to harvest.
Also, where would the seeds come from? The fertilisers, pesticides? The animal feed? All, to some extent, imported.
At best, the population would be malnourished, as they became increasingly so throughout World War II as a consequence of the blockade and despite the (arguably at least partially if not largely diversionary tactics of) the Land Army and Dig For Victory. (And led to food supplements for pregnant woman and children both during and after the War, including free school milk until 1971.)
But isn’t it a good idea to be self-sufficient?
Having established food trading relationships mitigates against the risks of poor harvests.With climate change, we can expect increasingly frequent sudden changes in growing or harvesting conditions. What if we had lower harvest yields, as in 2012, yet without established trading links with other countries?
And that’s without the reckoning of the limited kinds of agricultural products that fit our geography and climate. (And in terms of global food security, eating local produce isn’t necessarily the best option either; see slide 12/18 of this presentation What it takes to feed the city.)
So how much food should a country import?
A moot point. And there are no one-size-fits all or other simple answers.
Most agricultural production takes up a lot of land. No surprise then, that the largest producers of food are countries with large land mass. The US, China and India, according to financial journalist Sean Ross in this Investopedia article, produce more food than the entire European Union.
But China and India both have large populations. Hence although China always out produces the US (the superpower in terms of food exports) and India sometimes does, both China and India consume far more than the US. Indeed, as we reported in our horizon scanning report Back from the Future, China is beset by not only a large population to feed, but with pollution of soils and air affecting the quality of much of the food they do produce.
What is worrying is the number of countries who import nearly all of their food requirements.
The 2018 Global Hunger Index has this map:
Note the likes of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and parts of North Africa have a low hunger index, despite their geography and climate being unsuitable for large scale agricultural production— hence some 90% of the food requirements for some of these countries is imported.
But as the demand on the global larder increases, these states are becoming increasing concerned and looking for innovative ways to increase local production; see, for example, this article about Qatar, or this about Saudi Arabia.
That’s what money can do.
But for countries without the riches of some of the Middle East states, it’s a different story: Nexus of climate and conflict exacerbates Sahel food security crisis.
The Food Security Information Network (FSIN) Global Report on Food Crises 2018 opens with this statement:
“In 2017, almost 124 million people across 51 countries and territories faced Crisis levels [their capital letter] of acute food insecurity or worse (IPC Phase 3 and above or equivalent) and required urgent humanitarian action. In 2016 the population in need of urgent action was estimated at 108 million across 48 countries.”
This infographic (on page 5) summaries the main drivers of food insecurity:
If you can interpret raw data, see also the World Bank data on food imports.