The unparalleled flooding that has devastated large tracts of Australia this summer offers a troubling insight into the escalating risks of climate change to food security, according to a new report published this week highlighting challenges across the chain that could see major cities run out of food in coming decades without targeted action including emissions reduction.
The Farmers for Climate Action report looks at pinch points along the supply chain, many of which it says were tested and found wanting during the COVID-19 pandemic, from inputs and transport through to storage and retail.
The Fork In the Road report, authored by eminent food resilience researcher Stephen Bartos, says empty supermarket shelves could become a common occurrence as the climate crisis escalates, with food prices to skyrocket as the nutritional value of staples such as rice and wheat diminished.
“Some of the impacts are being felt already. During the first two months of 2022 much of central and northern Australia experienced food shortages due to the combined impact of flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem was not lack of food – there was plenty available on farms or in warehouses – but disruption to the supply chain required for its distribution,” the report states, giving the example of a six-tonne food drop by the ADF to marooned Coober Pedy as just one recent example.
According to the report, while the supply chain has sufficient resilience to withstand isolated shocks there is little bandwidth for consecutive and concurrent disruptions as we have seen this summer with the confluence of extensive flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate change will see such convergences become commonplace, the report finds, citing recent warnings from the IPCC:
Climate change is affecting Australia and New Zealand significantly. Some natural systems of cultural, environmental, social and economic significance are at risk of irreversible change… with impacts that cascade and compound across sectors and regions, as demonstrated by heatwaves, wildfire, cyclone, drought and flood events.”
Without decisive action to tackle climate change through deep and lasting cuts to emissions, the report said it would be “virtually certain” in coming decades that Australia’s major cities and towns would run out of food due to supply chain failures. Bartos and his team drew on interviews with a host of major players in Australia’s food supply network, along with scoping of the literature, to provide a detailed overview.
“In an interview for this project, the National Farmers’ Federation observed that food supply chains are more fragile than is generally assumed. Climate change is a factor in increasing fragility,” it states.
“Our resilience, preparedness and robustness are not where they need to be. This poses ongoing challenges to sustainability and reliability of food supply.”
Importantly, the report notes that the food production system itself has an important role to play by decarbonising, contribtuing about 21-27 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a third of which is attributable, respectively, to crop and livestock activities; land-use and land-use change including deforestation and peatland degradation; and supply chain activities.
Vulnerable at every stage
The report identifies vulnerabilities at every stage of the food supply chain linked to climate change, from the impact of drought on water supply; the consequences of extreme weather on operational costs, livestock stress and crop yields; transport interruptions; increasing or novel pest and disease concerns; shorter shelf-life and unpredictable supply of various goods to retailers; lower nutritional value of food staples; right through to higher prices for the consumer at the checkout.
It chronicles an arrary of impacts already being observed, including a 40 percent reduction in average inflows to the Murray-Darling basin over the past 20 years – home to 40 percent of Australia’s horticulture production – forced relocation of dairy and grape-growing operations to more temperate regions with more reliable rainfall, crop and livestock losses due to increased pests (fruit and buffalo fly, ticks ticks, ahpids, snails and worms), grass changes affecting livestock feed, and temperature change impacts on stone and pome fruits. Transport of live animals was also influenced by conditions, particularly extremes of heat, when the report said it was neither possible nor desirable to move stock for welfare reasons.
For such a vast continent nation which exports up to 70 percent of its agricultural production, transport links were also a pressure point that had recently and very obviously come under strain, the report says. Key road and rail links were just one extreme weather event from disruption, while the pandemic had shown how quickly staffing had knock-on effects for distribution.
Storing goods was an essential step in the process and heatwaves and increased atmospheric moisture increased spoilage risks – indeed, the report noted that many fruit and vegetable growers were now resorting to the cold chain to an extent that was not previously required.
There was also an increasing expectation of and demand for carbon-friendly, sustainable options in Australia’s export markets (and indeed among domestic consumers), highlighting the need for “good carbon accounting at all stages of the supply chain in order to meet market expectations,” it said.
“Moreover, where low emissions alternatives are available and affordable, supply chain operators who adopt them (for example, electric vehicles or solar powered refrigeration units) will gain a competitive advantage.”
Action for change
The report finds that many actors in the food supply chain are already pursuing climate change policies, which, in many cases, go well beyond the Australian Government’s own ambitions and commitments. It groups imperatives into four loose categories: building resilience, managing risk, adaptation and mitigation.
Building diversity, redundancy and flexibility into the system and shortening supply chains, with a multiplicity of nodes and links, was seen as a critical factor in shoring up against shocks. There were many gaps in our knowledge, and a number of players interviewed for the report called for a national risk assessment of climate change impacts on food security at different levels of warming. It describes as “unfortunate” the Productivity Commission’s decision to omit food from its review of supply chains amid COVID-19.
On the mitigation front, it points to a number of developments including renewable electrification of warehouses and storage facilities, use of electric vehicles in transport, improved insulation, substituting rail for road to reduce emissions, and the shortening of supply chains with resultant reductions in fuel, storage and handling costs.
Citing the IPCC, it says between 25-30 percent of total food production is wasted or lost and this accounts for 8-10 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Supply chain improvements would not only shore up food security but – if reducing food loss and waste – also contribute to emissions reduction.
While adaptation is a welcome piece of the puzzle, the report warns it will become exponentially more difficult as warming accelerated and intervening to slow this process must be central to any efforts to address food supply concerns.
It cites work from the Australian Academy of Science on a 3 degrees warming scenario, which warns that climate change has already reduced profitability of Australia’s broad-acre farms by and average of 22 percent since the year 2000 and would be a “threat multiplier”:
Climate change scenarios of 3°C or more are likely to be very challenging for livestock systems. For example, across the top third of Australia, almost every day will be a heat stress day, affecting livestock and the people who manage them. There will also be impacts on water demand, pasture quality and quantity, and fire management…
Australia’s water security will be significantly influenced by climate change… Changes to the global water cycle are likely to cause regional conflict, particularly in the Asia–Pacific region. Food security in Australia would also be affected as climate change will limit the capacity to export food.”
The report says over the longer term the most important action both businesses and governments can take will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Deep and lasting cuts in emissions in the food supply chain will deliver long term benefits to consumers, exporters, farmers, food manufacturers, retailers, and the many other businesses involved in food production and distribution,” it states.
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