As climate change intensifies and temperatures rise, food crises will become the norm rather than the exception. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown how disruptions to critical food-producing regions can have severe knock-on effects across the globe, felt most keenly by developing and poorer countries. According to the World Bank, global food prices are on track to rise 23 per cent this year, having already risen 31 per cent in 2021.
“The war is only the most recent and visible example of how fragile and interconnected the world’s food systems are,” says Shalini Unnikrishnan, Global Lead for Societal Impact at the consultancy BCG. “It’s vital that we don’t just get sucked into short-term fixes. We need to find multiple near- and medium-term solutions to improve the resilience of the ways the world produces, stores and distributes food.”
Together, Russia and Ukraine account for about 12 per cent of the foodstuffs traded around the world, and both are critical exporters of key commodities including wheat (28 per cent of global trade) and sunflower oil (69 per cent). And, as exports from these countries tumble, some other leading exporting countries have announced export bans or licensing restrictions designed to protect their own food stockpiles.
Many of the inherent weaknesses in the food system that amplify and worsen the effects of individual crises go way beyond the immediate situation in Ukraine. For example, land degradation has already reduced the productivity of 23 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, and up to $577bn in annual agricultural production is at risk from pollinator loss. In turn, the food crisis and the vulnerable nature of the food chain underscore why it’s critical to step up efforts to decarbonise, to prevent the situation getting worse before we can make it better.
How to do that? “To find the right solutions to fix the food system, it’s important to reframe the problem as an interconnected series of events, pressures and dynamic uncertainties, and assess how they will play out over several years,” says Unnikrishnan.
To help with this process, BCG has developed a series of five-to-seven-year scenarios, which offer a useful way to ponder different stretched-but-plausible future states in which stakeholders in the global food system will have to operate.
These scenarios ask what the global food system might look like in the medium term, four or five years from now. Will concerted efforts to relieve the current food crisis and stabilise the food system succeed? Or will they fail to provide sufficient food, and the means to grow it, equitably and economically?
Such scenarios are a popular tool in fields where decisions that will affect an uncertain future must be made now. They are used, for example, to estimate likely greenhouse gas emissions pathways, depending on assumptions about economic development and improvements in energy efficiency. “These scenarios are not predictions,” Unnikrishnan stresses. “But it’s possible to imagine what the world could look like, depending on how certain key factors, and their underlying uncertainties, play out.”
Good and bad
The BCG scenarios, for example, look at how influences such as new technology and reduced meat consumption might affect the state of the world’s agriculture.
They also try to judge how food systems will be affected by climate impacts and changes to global economics and geopolitics, such as the rise of nationalism.
The results range from the pessimistic, in which unrestricted global warming and significant reductions in global trade send food prices spiralling to record highs, to more hopeful, where coordinated and collective action increases demand for more nutritious, environmentally conscious plant-based foods.
There are steps that should be taken irrespective of which scenario ends up being the closest to reality. “We need to diversify food production across diets, supply chains and markets, and address the indebtedness, economic inequities and market distortions that have contributed to the current crisis,” Unnikrishnan says. “We need a coordinated effort across all sectors to rethink and repair our food systems, making them more equitable, more resilient and more responsive in times of great need.”