The number of sudden production losses – food shocks – is increasing. A new study led by researchers in Australia, Food production shocks across land and sea published in Nature Sustainability, shows that some regions and food sectors are more likely to suffer than others. In addition, several sectors and countries are today closely interconnected and therefore interdependent. Sweden has underdeveloped contingency planning for changes in food production and the heatwave summer of 2018 brought this question to the fore.
During the years 1961 – 2013, the planet suffered 226 sudden food production losses, or food shocks, in 134 different countries. Losses were spread across all sectors (crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture) with a higher frequency of losses in crops and livestock.
Globally, the frequency of crises is increasing and this applies in all sectors. The primary causes of food shocks are extreme weather and conflict, but causes vary between different sectors and regions. The implications are profound. Sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern conflicts combined with climate change are, for example, causing the first increases in world hunger in recent years.
Drought afflicts cultivation
Around half of global crop losses are caused by extreme weather changes, primarily droughts. Of all geographical areas, South Asia is the hardest hit and is over-represented in terms of both losses in crop and meat production. These two sectors are also closely linked through the production of animal feed.
Approximately 41 percent of livestock losses are caused by geopolitical changes such as conflicts and 23 percent by extreme weather changes.
Overfishing creates major losses
Nearly half of fish production losses globally are caused by poor management of resources. In other words, overfishing. In general, the causes of food shocks in the production of seafood (aquaculture and fishing combined) are more varied than for land-based production. South America suffers the highest shock frequency. An important factor behind sudden losses of production in aquaculture is outbreaks of disease.
Sara Hornborg conducts research on sustainable seafood production at RISE. She is co-author of the article Food production shocks across land and sea.
– The results reported in the article are relevant in different ways for different countries. Sweden is a rich but importdependent country and has weak contingency planning for crises in the global food production system. It’s difficult today to establish responsible domestic food production when it’s so cheap to import, says Sara Hornborg.
Food crises create price wars
In a food crisis the price of products increases sharply, and it is currently uncertain who will be best positioned to pay and how tariffs might affect the present global food system. In order to be better equipped for future food crises, domestic food production needs to be boosted.
– We need to reduce import dependence and work with the entire food chain on several levels, says Sara Hornborg. We need to review the economic conditions for responsible water consumption and agricultural production in Sweden and reduce overfishing in our waters. There are also fish species that we hardly ever eat today, such as lake carp, for example. And we should utilise more than just fish fillets. Product development is also needed for improved resource management such as more sustainable and tasty alternatives to meat, based on indigenous vegetables.
The record hot summer of 2018 hit Sweden's farmers hard with both a large proportion of lost harvests and the forced slaughter of animals.
– Summer 2018 was an eyeopener for both the general public and for producers and we don’t know how the coming years will look. Sweden has no stockpiles so if we have problems importing food it will be noticeable within a week. This can be compared with countries such as Finland, which has a contingency stockpile to cope for around half a year, concludes Sara Hornborg.