A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, 1935. George E. Marsh/NOAA
When the southern Great Plains of the US were blighted with a series of droughts in the 1930s, it had an unparalled impact on the whole country. Combined with decades of ill-advised farming policy, the result was the Dust Bowl. Massive dust storms began in 1931 and devastated the country’s major cereal producing areas. US wheat and maize production crashed by 32% in 1933 and continued to fall for the rest of the decade as more droughts hit.
By 1934, 14 million hectares of agricultural land was degraded beyond use, while a further 51 million hectares (roughly three-quarters the size of Texas) was rapidly shedding its topsoil. Millions of people lost their livelihoods. The desperate migration that followed was immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
But what consequences would a disruption like the Dust Bowl have now, when the Great Plains of the US are not just the breadbasket of America, but a major producer of staple cereals that are exported around the world? As part of an international team of researchers, we ran a computer simulation to find out.
More eggs in fewer baskets
Today, the global food system is more connected than ever. Major disruptions to production in one region, like the Dust Bowl caused, could have a ripple effect on global food supply and prices.
Food trade has been increasing rapidly since the mid 1900s, and 80% of the world population now lives in countries that import more food calories than they export. For roughly half of us, dependence on imported calories and protein has increased during the past three decades, while almost two thirds of people increasingly rely on imported fruits and vegetables for essential micronutrients.
Many countries, ranging from relatively small nations like Finland to highly populous China and India, are increasing their reliance on imports while reducing the number of trade links, essentially putting more of their eggs in fewer baskets. At the same time, a few countries are becoming hubs of global food production, such as the US and Brazil who dominate exports of soybean, which is used primarily as animal feed.
According to the recent simulation, a decline in US wheat production of the same magnitude as occurred during the Dust Bowl (about 30% over four consecutive years), would deplete nearly all wheat reserves in the US and reduce global stocks by 31%. Since the US is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and has many trade links, nearly all countries would be affected.
Lower wheat reserves could cause a shortage of products like flour, pasta and bread, making them too expensive for many to buy, especially in poorer countries. Even if a country doesn’t trade wheat with the US directly, the cascading effects of the production shock could be felt through other trading partners. Countries seeking to meet their needs with limited supply from the US would need to increase imports from elsewhere and decrease their exports, passing on the disruption to other trade partners.
As global food reserves shrink, it leaves the world even more exposed to future shocks. Without this buffer, wheat products are likely to be rationed, directly raising global food prices.
The dust bowl simulation illustrates how trade can transmit the consequences of production shocks in one part of the world to countries far away. But global trade is a double-edged sword. It can help overcome temporary shortages in local supply and enable a rich and nutritious diet. Globalisation has moved food production to regions where it’s more efficient – whether in terms of economic cost or resources like land and water. This has helped save cropland and water and allowed populations to prosper even where local resources are scarce.
The warming climate intensifies extreme weather such as droughts, floods and storms, and increases the risk of simultaneous crop failures around the world. At the start of 2020, unusually wet weather helped breed Kenya’s worst locust outbreak for more than 70 years, which has the potential to consume vast acres of crops.
But even with so much uncertainty and risk, it’s hard to imagine people giving up the benefits of a global food system. Would any of us really want to go back to a time when we couldn’t enjoy food from distant places and different climates at any time of year?
But perhaps we should question the desire for efficiency that has driven the current system and instead aim to build one that can withstand shocks.
Small-scale farmers plant several different crops to ensure the failure of one isn’t a catastrophe. The same principle can be applied on a much larger scale to the global food system. Procuring a diverse range of staple foods and sources for growing them can help to ensure that the failure of one component – whether it’s one protein source or one trading partner growing it – can be compensated by another.
The modern dust bowl simulation can help to illuminate some of the systemic risks in the global food system, but the COVID-19 pandemic is a better demonstration of how fragile our hyperconnected world is. Rather than try to revert to the way things were before the crisis, countries should seize the opportunity to transform this system to something more resilient, so that when the next major disruption hits, we’ll be prepared.
About The Author
Miina Porkka, Postdoctoral Researcher in Water and Food System Resilience, Stockholm University; Alison Heslin, Postdoctoral Researcher in Agriculture and Environmental Change, Columbia University, and Matti Kummu, Associate Professor in Global Water Issues, Aalto University
Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities
by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon
Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats
by Gwynne Dyer
Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.