More resilient food systems are required in the face of climate change and conflict, according to a new report.

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 According to a new CU Boulder-led study, increased water demand will be the No. 1 threat to food security in the next 20 years, followed closely by heat waves, droughts, income inequality, and political instability.

According to the United Nations and The World Bank, the report, published today in One Earth, comes as global hunger levels in 2021 surpassed the previous record set in 2020, and acute food insecurity in many countries may worsen this year.

These pressing threats are not new: the consequences of political conflict, as well as the exacerbated environmental effects of climate change, are already being measured and studied around the world. According to the new study, increased collaboration between these areas of research could not only fortify global food security in the face of any of these threats, but also strengthen it in the face of all of them.

“We strongly support the idea of building more resilient food systems in general, rather than dealing with individual problems here and there,” said Zia Mehrabi, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of environmental studies and the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering. “It doesn’t matter whether the system is subjected to a climate, environmental, or political shock—if resilient systems are in place, they will be able to deal with all kinds of shocks.”

According to a recent World Bank analysis, the war in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, and the ongoing economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic are reversing years of development gains and pushing food prices to all-time highs, working against the UN’s goal of ending hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition in all forms by 2030.

Furthermore, extreme events such as heat waves, floods, and droughts are on the rise.

While researchers and policymakers work to improve the resilience of food systems, they frequently work in isolation, tackling one problem at a time. According to the new study, there is a significant need for increased collaboration and coordination among researchers who study specific threats to food systems, so that decision-makers have comprehensive information, updated models, and relevant tools as threats emerge.

Conflict, weather, and capacity

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers conducted a survey of 69 global experts in various fields related to food security in 2019. They ranked 32 top food security threats in terms of both impact and likelihood over the next two decades.

They discovered that many climate change-related environmental events, such as unpredictable weather changes, could have the greatest negative impact on food security. Increased water demand, drought, heat waves, and the collapse of ecosystem services (natural benefits we rely on every day from the environmental systems around us) ranked first in terms of both impact and probability.

Conflict, weather, and capacity

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers conducted a survey of 69 global experts in various fields related to food security in 2019. They ranked 32 top food security threats in terms of both impact and likelihood over the next two decades.

However, they discovered that threats to food security posed by income inequality, global price shocks, political instability, and migration are highly likely to occur in the next two decades, placing these threats in the top ten.

Over half of the world’s food insecure people live in conflict-prone areas, which include failed states or areas with political instability, terrorism, civil unrest, or armed conflict. Migration and displacement caused by these conflicts are among the top five most likely threats to global food security over the next 20 years.

“Food security is not a problem of production; it is a problem of distribution, access, and poverty, which is exacerbated by conflict,” Mehrabi explained. “Conflict not only makes people more vulnerable, but it also limits their ability to adapt.”

Conflict is also nothing new. Prior to the Ukraine conflict and the ongoing Ethiopian civil war, civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere posed a threat to regional and global food security.

“We would have been in a much better situation if we had already been focused on addressing conflict and extreme events when COVID occurred,” Mehrabi said.

Resilience research

The researchers also asked the surveyed experts what the top 50 questions scientists and policymakers should be focusing on are, as well as what the biggest outstanding research priorities in these areas are.

Many people prioritized food system diversification, believing that more diverse entities are more stable. For example, Ukraine supplied 10% of global wheat exports in 2021 and 40% of World Food Program wheat supplies—a supply that will be severely impacted by Russia’s attacks on the country in 2022.

While we cannot change the distribution of agricultural land, Mehrabi suggested that researchers and policymakers consider how countries can diversify their food production, both in terms of location and nutritional output.

Researchers can also create better maps and forecasts, which can inform proactive steps to maintain food security before, during, and after extreme events. Mehrabi points out that the data collection underlying our maps has not kept up with the advanced prediction tools available to researchers today, and many models have not been validated with matching on-the-ground measurements.

“We can see it happening right now in our world, with conflict and climate deteriorating.” “The trends indicate, and experts agree, that this will worsen in the future,” Mehrabi said. “How will we build and govern food systems that are resilient to a wide range of shocks and extreme events?” We must begin to consider how we can design systems that can adapt and cope with all of them.”