Playing With Your Food Could Help Save The World From Climate Disaster


Last year, powerful global interests played a game with food in Washington, D.C.

The Food Chain Reaction presented policymakers, agricultural and environmental experts, and business leaders from India, Europe, China, the United States, Brazil, and Africa, with a scenario in the near future where pressure mounted on the global food system. The two-day gaming scenario was organized by the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for American Progress, as well as private-sector food giants Cargill, CNA, and Mars.

The participants represented major food producers and consumers from the years 2020 to 2030, as the game’s designers slowly upped the ante with crisis after crisis. Drought in North America’s breadbasket. El Niño and La Niña events cutting yields in India and Australia. Skyrocketing commodity prices. Repeat flooding in Bangladesh. Social unrest. Coups. They were asked to design security, agriculture, climate, and foreign policy in response.

What did they learn?

Two participants, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Michael Werz, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, summarize the scenario in a new policy brief. They outline the steps they recommend the policy, academic, and international community should take to prepare for a major food crisis.

A young boy carries a box with items distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Zimbabwe. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

The first lesson was that this game was not a game. As the simulated 2020s wore on, climate change and food security began to affect core national security issues and regional stability in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The authors found that “the food crisis scenario felt all too realistic.”

Climate scientists have known this was a threat for a while, with a summary from the IPCC in 2014 warning that “starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease [are] likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change.”

The second lesson was that experts need to share their expertise. When weather events caused staple food prices to rise, national security experts lacked basic knowledge about food security, while agriculture and environmental experts lacked knowledge about budgetary and political factors limiting governmental responses. “We need to move the food security conversation out of the confines of agricultural and humanitarian debates into more strategic, long term policy conversations that encompass global governance and security issues,” Werz told ThinkProgress.

The third lesson was that multilateral institutions need help. Many participants found the United Nations and the World Bank lacking in their abilities to handle the challenge of such a large scale.

Werz said that “what we need is a serious policy conversation about new structures in global governance.” Daschle took a more positive outlook, noting that multilateral institutions have done a “tremendous job” so far, but notes that “increased commitment from country governments to enhance collaboration and funding is critical to sustaining their efforts and to tackling any future global food crisis.”

Andrew Light, former senior climate change adviser at the U.S. Department of State, told ThinkProgress that “there is better coordination today on rapid response measures” but sadly, “political and economic stressors can greatly diminish the effectiveness of any response as we saw in Syria, so there is plenty of room for improvement.” One thing that would help, he said, is better forecasting when it comes to food crises.

Light said the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, created in 2014 at the U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Summit, could serve this purpose, with a lot more development. It’s a “a voluntary group of dozens of countries who are collaborating now on innovative solutions to increase agricultural resilient to climate change, increase sustainable production, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in this sector.”

The authors argue that in a post-Cold War, multipolar world, the “more delicate and multidimensional regional arrangements of today have lower thresholds for serious disruption.” The impacts of climate change increase the risk of a serious crisis, and it is not at all certain how the international community will patch together a response.

The effects of a food crisis in one part of the world are not easily contained. “In this context, climate change, human mobility, water scarcity, and demographic dynamics can become serious local and regional challenges and create instability far beyond any one region,” Daschle and Werz wrote.

Daschle and Werz noted that President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy — which set the goal to “support the resilience of the poorest nations to the effects of climate change, and strengthen food security” — actually “marked a turning point in the security community’s thinking about these issues.” That same year, the Quadrennial Defense Review noted that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.”

The most surprising lesson learned was that volatility is the new normal

Since then, academics and policy analysts have focused more on the topic. Daschle and Werz wrote that “the evidence is strong that climate disruptions affect livelihoods and economic well-being at the local and national levels, contribute to decisions to migrate, and strain states’ capacity to respond.” However, they advocate for more attention and study to connect the dots between specific climate disruptions and decisions to migrate.

It is easy for someone who lives more comfortably in a food-secure community to miss the danger presented by a climate-driven global food crisis. Yet even the diets of those with plenty of food can easily be affected by climate change. A recent study found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the resulting climate impacts would change the diets of otherwise comfortable people in developed countries, reducing the amount of fruits and vegetables available to them.

“The double burden of malnutrition — undernutrition and overnutrition — is an interesting dilemma and one where, rightfully so, we are increasingly focusing on the overnutrition side,” Daschle told ThinkProgress. “Indeed, food security requires improving both the quality and quantity of our food supply. In developed and developing countries, we will need to address the impacts of climate change on producing not only enough food, but more nutritious food.”

In the months since the scenario ran, Werz said that predicting future food crises will not get any easier.

“The most surprising lesson learned was that volatility is the new normal,” he told ThinkProgress. “Risk assessment in an year of climate change becomes increasingly challenging and we are entering uncharted waters in decades to come.”