The world on the brink of the great food crisis

For Giorgio Monbiot ! Translation: Antonio Martini

In recent years, scientists have frantically sounded an alarm that governments have refused to heed: the global food system is starting to resemble the financial system on the eve of 2008.

While a financial collapse can be devastating to the well-being of societies, a collapse of the food system is unimaginable. But there is growing evidence that something is very wrong. The current rise in food prices is the latest sign of systemic instability.

Many people assume that the food crisis was caused by a combination of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. While these are important factors, they only exacerbate the previous problems. For years it seemed that famine was on the verge of extinction. The number of malnourished people fell from 811 million in 2005 to 607 million in 2014. But in 2015 the trend started to reverse. Hunger has increased since then – reaching 650 million in 2019 and back to 811 million in 2020. The numbers are likely to be much worse this year.

Now, get ready for the bad news: all of this happened at a time of great abundance. Global food production has progressed steadily for over half a century, well above population growth. Last year, the world grain harvest was bigger than ever. Surprisingly, the number of the undernourished has started to rise just as world food prices have started to decline. In 2014, when there were fewer hungry people than in any previous year, the global food price index stood at 115 points. In 2015 it dropped to 93 and remained below 100 until 2021.

He has only been shooting for the past two years. Rising food prices are now a major driver of inflation in many parts of the world. Food is also becoming inaccessible to many people in rich countries. The impact on poorer countries is much worse.

What is going on? Global food is, like global finance, a complex system that develops spontaneously from billions of interactions. Complex systems have counterintuitive properties. They are resilient under certain conditions, as their self-organizing properties stabilize them. But as stress increases, these same properties begin to transmit shock throughout the network. Beyond a certain point, a small disturbance can push the entire system beyond a critical threshold, at which point it suddenly and relentlessly collapses.

We already know enough about systems to predict whether they are resilient or fragile. Scientists represent complex systems as a network of nodes and links. Nodes are like those of a network; links are the wires that connect them. In the food system, nodes include companies that trade grains, seeds and pesticides, major exporters and importers, and the ports through which food passes. The links are your commercial and institutional relationships.

If the nodes behave in multiple ways and the links between them are weak, the system is likely to be resilient. If some nodes become dominant, behave similarly, and are closely connected, the system has likely become fragile. In 2008, as the financial crisis unfolded, large banks developed similar risk management strategies and means while seeking the same sources of profit. They became closely related to each other, in projects that regulatory bodies barely understood. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, there was a risk that everything would fall apart.

Something makes those who study the global food system shudder. In recent years, as in the financial system of the 2000s, the key nodes of the food system have expanded, their links have strengthened, business strategies are convergent and synchronized, and features that could prevent systemic collapse (“redundancy”, “modularity”, “circuit breakers” and “backup mechanisms”) have been eliminated, exposing the system to shocks capable of causing global contagion.

According to one estimate, four companies alone control 90% of the global grain trade. The same companies dominate seeds, chemicals, processing, packaging, distribution and retail. Over the course of 18 years, the number of trade links between corn exporters and rice exporters has doubled. Countries are now polarizing between super importers and super exporters. Much of this trade passes through vulnerable points such as the Turkish Bosphorus and Dardanelles Strait (now hampered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine), the Suez and Panama Canals, and the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mande and Malacca.

One of the fastest cultural changes in human history is the convergence towards a global standard diet. As our food has become more diverse everywhere, globally it has become less diverse. Just four crops – wheat, rice, corn and soy – account for nearly 60 percent of the calories planted by farmers. Its production is now highly concentrated in the hands of a handful of nations, including Russia and Ukraine. The standard global diet is produced by the standard global farm, supplied by the same companies, with the same packages of seeds, pesticides and machinery, and vulnerable to the same environmental shocks.

The food industry is becoming more like the financial system, amplifying what scientists call the “network density” of the system, making it more susceptible to cascading failures. All over the world, trade barriers have been broken down; the extended motorways and ports that homogenize the global network. It is a mistake to think that this system improves food safety. It allowed companies to cover warehouse costs by moving from warehouse to continuous flows. In general, this strategy just in time it works. But if deliveries are interrupted or there is a rapid increase in demand, the shelves can suddenly empty.

A text in the magazine Sustainability of nature reports that in the food system “the frequency of shocks has grown over time, on land and at sea and on a global scale”. When I do research for my book RegenesisI realized that it is this growing series of contagion shocks, exacerbated by financial speculation, that is increasing world hunger.

Now the global food system must survive not only its internal frailties, but also the environmental and political disruptions that can interact with each other. To give a current example, the Indian government suggested in mid-April that it could offset the drop in global food exports caused by the invasion of Ukraine. Just a month later, it banned exports.sisters of wheat, after crops dried up in a devastating heatwave.

We urgently need to diversify global food production, both geographically and in terms of crops and agricultural techniques. We need to break the grip of megacorporations and financial speculators. We need to create reserve systems, producing food in very different ways. We need to introduce spare capacity into a system threatened by its own efficiencies.

If so many entered famine statistics in an unprecedented period of prosperity, the consequences of massive crop failures that environmental crises can cause defy the imagination. The system must change.

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