Considering the vulnerability of our food system to climatic disruptions

By Chad Kruger

Source: WSU CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability

While the nationally televised Seahawks game was delayed for lightning Sunday night, much of the inland Pacific Northwest braced for the fourth major storm event this summer, with warnings for high winds and severe dust storms, massive electrical storms, heavy rainfall with localized flash flooding, mudslides and extensive power outages. Fortunately, my family did NOT get struck by lightning during this storm as we did in the August 10th storm and this storm also doesn’t seem to have sparked any new wild fires! In light of the on-going flood events in Colorado this week, it looks like we probably had it easy this time with only some inconveniences that should be corrected in the next 24-48 hours. However, given that September is National Preparedness Month, this seems like a good opportunity to highlight a recent commentary paper that I co-authored with some colleagues around the country evaluating research needs regarding the vulnerability of the food system to climatic disruptions. As with most commentary articles, this activity included a review of published literature coupled with expert assessment of where there are gaps in our understanding of vulnerabilities.

It became obvious very quickly that the vast majority of the scientific literature assessing our “climate-related food security vulnerability” is focused on the major production agriculture systems. This includes such things as temperature effects on yields, biotic stresses, and concerns regarding irrigation water security. Because this is the precise area I’ve been working in for the past few years I happened to know that literature quite well. While we know that there are vulnerabilities in production ag and that those vulnerabilities are tied very tightly to local conditions, many of these vulnerabilities are well within our capacity to manage. (Projections for the U.S. Pacific Northwest are actually not that dire – see Stockle 2010; Eigenbrode, in press; Rajagopalan in preparation).

What was interesting for me to learn, though, is that the scientific literature is largely silent on the vulnerability of the larger food system (beyond production) to climatic disruptions (e.g. major storms). Considering all of the work that has been done on assessing food systems in the past 20 years, I was surprised that virtually no one has been actively researching vulnerabilities of our food system because of climate. There are some studies that have looked at transportation system vulnerabilities related to freight and passenger vehicles, but not explicitly to answer the question of how these might affect local, regional or national food security.

We know that our modern food system is largely dependent on a “just in time” model of efficiency in moving food from production, processing and storage to market. We also know, especially in the PNW how vulnerable our transportation system can be at various choke points (e.g., winter crossings of mountain passes, interstate highways through flood plains, rail lines along slide-prone slopes, etc.). We can debate the merits of a local vs. regional vs. global food system all we want, but what my colleagues highlighted in the commentary is that our pre-conceived notions about which type of food system may be the most robust to climate disruption are largely dependent on perceptions that lack a rigorous research basis. While a robust local food system is often promoted as a resilience strategy to buffer regional or global food disruptions, a local/regional climate disruption could devastate local food production in a given area. A truly resilient strategy likely depends on having a robust system with a certain amount of redundancy built into it that can cover both short and long-term disruptions due to highly localized or regionalized impacts.

I’ve referenced the brilliant research of Amyarta Sen in a couple of other posts (Feeding the World? and No, I won’t stop eating meat to feed the planet), but I think his findings are applicable to this issue as well. Sen found that famine in the Bengal province of India was not caused by insufficient production of food (more food was produced in the year of the famine than in the prior year with no famine), but by the inability of people to secure the food they needed when they needed it – what he called an entitlement failure. While many of the issues we highlighted in our commentary about climatic disruptions and the security of our food system focus on systemic issues (transportation infrastructure, policy, etc.) that will require major public and private investments to understand and correct, the bottom line is that climatic disruptions can detrimentally affect the capacity of people to secure food. This means that food security during climatic disruptions is an issue of critical importance to our preparations as individuals, families and local communities.

The research that I’ve done with colleagues here in the region indicates that the relative vulnerability of our agriculture production systems is low compared to other parts of the nation and the world, but that shouldn’t be used to create a false sense of food security. The Pacific Northwest is among the most diverse and bountiful agricultural regions in the world, but disruption in a few specific bottlenecks (either natural or human infrastructure) could have serious repercussions, particularly in the short-term. We’ve already had several disruptive climatic crises nationally (e.g. hurricanes Katrina and Sandy) and in our own state (Interstate 5 flooding in 2007) to remind us that everyone needs to make reasonable considerations for emergency preparedness.

Recent examples from our region indicate that most regional climatic disruptions last no more than a week (except when wildfires follow!), with disruptions in electrical power being a serious consideration for the preservation, storage and preparation of food. This is likely a good guide for the minimum food security preparation that households should plan for. However, it’s instructive to note that power restoration after Hurricane Sandy was significantly delayed in certain locations in a region that also rarely experiences extended problems. Assessing the risks specific to your local context is important in further assessing what preparations are reasonable to make for your household. The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) has numerous resources available, including curriculum to help families prepare before a crisis.

When that bolt of lightning struck our vehicle last month, it was a stunning reminder of how insignificant all the developments of human technology can be in light of the power of nature.

Eigenbrode, S., Capalbo, S., Houston, L., Johnson-Maynard, J., Kruger, C.E., & Olen, B. (in press). Agriculture. In P. Mote, A. Snover (Eds.), Northwest Climate Assessment Report Island Press.

Miller, M., M. Anderson, C. Francis, C. Kruger, C. Barfod, J. Park, & B. McCown (2013). Critical Research Needs for Successful Food Systems Adaptation to Climate Change. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

Stockle, C.O., Nelson, R.L., Higgins, S., Brunner, J.F., Grove, G.G., Boydston, R.A., Whiting, M.D., & Kruger, C.E. (2010). Assessment of Climate Change Impact on Eastern Washington Agriculture. Climatic Change.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *