West’s ‘dust bowl’ future now ‘locked in’, as world risks imminent food crisis

Past climate emissions mean the US and Europe will experience devastating drought in 80 years, and a global food crisis could be triggered in the 2020s — yet it’s not too late to build resilience and avert the worst

Nafeez Ahmed
Dec 30, 2019 · 25 min read
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‘Flash drought’ in northern Great Plains in July 2017 triggered wildfires burning an area the size of New York City (Source: Nate Hegyi/KUER)

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Research sponsored by global credit ratings agency Moody’s concludes that by the end of century, parts of the US and Europe are now bound to experience severe reductions in rainfall equivalent to the American ‘dust bowl’ of the 1930s, which devastated midwest farming for a decade. These consequences are now ‘locked in’ as a consequence of carbon emissions which we have already accumulated into the atmosphere.

But that’s not all. A spate of new scientific research released through 2019 has thrown light on nearer-term risks of a global food crisis in coming decades, such as a multi-breadbasket failure — due not just to climate change, but a combination of factors including population growth, industrial soil degradation, rising energy costs, groundwater depletion, among other trends.

Taken in context with a number of climate change models produced over the last decade, the heightened risk of droughts in the 2020s means that a global food crisis could be imminent. Over 1,700 published climate models examined by the University of Leeds point to the risk of a global food crisis after 2030; and 12 models point to this risk emerging and amplifying in just three years.

None of this research shows that the destructive impacts on human societies are unavoidable. With foresight, planning, mitigation, adaptation and cooperation, it’s possible for us to not simply build resilience to coming crises by minimising disruptions and protecting the vulnerable; but to pave the way for a sustainable food system that can operate as a solution to climate catastrophe.

The coming food crisis

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(Source: USDA Soil Conservation Service)

Near-term risks?

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Screenshot of Aqueduct Food tool

“The implications reach far beyond food security… Farmers turned climate refugees will need to vacate, find new work, and support families and households that suddenly find themselves uprooted and with little means to start over.”

Peak groundwater in 30 years?

“Many of the world’s major freshwater aquifers are being exploited unsustainably, with some projected to approach environmentally unsafe drawdown limits within the 21st century. Given that aquifer depletion tends to occur in important crop producing regions, the prospect of running dry poses a significant threat to global food security.”

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Graphic depicting global water withdrawals this century (Source: Turner, Science of the Total Environment, 2019)

“… the Arabian Peninsula (where groundwater becomes costly) and California (where groundwater reaches its environmental limit) experience almost total loss of rice and miscellaneous cropland, respectively.”

Is another global food crisis round the corner?

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(Source: iStock)

Hitting the danger zone from 2022

“… droughts will, on average, become months longer and markedly more severe (132 percent and 154 percent on average for wheat and maize) across Asia… The increased drought risk is an imminent threat to food security on a global scale.”

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In 2019, Australia faced its hottest drought ever. Above, Australian farmer Gus Bullen drags hay that will feed sheep on Dunmore Property near Pilliga in December 2018 (Source: Adam Ferguson for TIME)

Global food system meltdown

Climate change could help starve half the planet in forty years

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Conflict and climate change are driving a rise in global hunger according to the UN (Source: Phys.org)

“For example, Australia and the UK, both showing significant undernourishment by 2050, have projected population increases of 50 and 23 percent respectively for 2050 whereas crop (wheat) production for these countries will decline significantly due to unfavourable climate conditions (60 and 16 percent declines reported for Australia and the UK respectively).”

Food systems at the crossroads

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Sikkim, a state of India in the Himalayas, has successfully transitioned from industrial to agroecological agriculture (Source: Aseed)
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Michigan Urban Farming Initiative feeds 2,000 households for free (Source: Inhabitat)

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