I thought it was blue ...

I thought it was blue …

Despite the bleating in the Guardian, I think it is still the case that there is a surprising dearth of global warming-related science fiction. This lack of effort by sci-fi writers is despite the fact that the changes are fast approaching, and most surprisingly one of the changes expected to take longest – arctic ice loss – is happening at an incredible pace before our very eyes, with potentially huge effects. We have already seen major crop losses in the UK due to flooding, and I am convinced that the flooding in the UK is due to arctic sea ice loss (or I will be convinced, I should say, if it is a regular phenomenon in the next few years). So, I’m wondering if the world faces the possibility of a major, generalized agricultural failure in our lifetime, and what that will look like. Let’s have a go at imagining it, but first let’s look at what it might be and how it might happen.

Describing a generalized agricultural failure

Only a small number of countries provide a large amount of food for the majority of the world. Wheat, for example, is primarily produced in China, the USA, EU, Australia and Canada; rice is clustered in a small number of Asian countries and is highly dependent on monsoonal weather and water supplies. A generalized agricultural failure would easily occur if just a couple of countries experienced a simultaneous loss of productive capacity. Particularly, crop failures in the USA, China, the EU and Australia would seriously disrupt the balance of food supply. Furthermore, there are a lot of countries that due to either economic decisions or environment are heavily dependent on imports of food. Middle eastern countries with large areas of non-arable land and African nations that are heavily committed to cash cropping are examples of this. Many of these countries are also low- or middle-income nations with very limited emergency food supplies, which makes them very vulnerable to disruptions in international trade. Finally, some major high-income economies with serious military power – such as Japan and the UK – do not have food security, and are currently heavily dependent on international food markets. Collapses in supply for these countries would make them extremely itchy about guaranteeing overseas trade supplies.

Much of the world’s food is devoted to supplying cattle, and a lot of arable land is currently devoted to biofuels or other “non-essential” supplies (such as sugar cane or oil-producing crops). However, food is not an immediately replaceable good – being dependent on seasonal patterns, it can take a year to switch crops, but societies with poor food reserves can’t go a year while they wait. Also some crops that might be replaced in that year have a huge investment in infrastructure that their owners might not want to reverse in times of national emergency: cork, olives, vineyards and all forms of orchards can take 10 or 15 years to bring to productive capacity, so ploughing them under to grow essential foods means a potentially quite long-term reduction in food diversity. The global agricultural system is not nimble in the way that a manufacturing system might be, and is also often heavily subsidized and protected.

So a general agricultural failure would involve failure of crops in a couple of independent producers for a couple of different food types all in the same year – possibly after a couple of years of build up in which reserves were strained – and in both the northern and southern hemispheres. For maximum effect it would need to occur in some high- and some low- or middle-income countries, disrupting not just the production of food but consumption and export patterns. It would have to affect a couple of exporters to have a truly global impact, and it would have to affect foods that are used for human as well as animal consumption.

How would agricultural failure happen?

In the short- to medium-term, a generalized agricultural collapse is only going to happen if it combines some global-warming-related phenomena with some bad luck. The only global-warming-related phenomenon that seems to be reliably weird at the moment is the arctic, but this is having fairly large effects and they can probably be expected to grow more extreme. They seem to be particularly affecting the food producers in the EU and North America, so a viable near-term scenario for agricultural failure would probably be:

  • serious flooding in Autumn in the EU and/or UK: due to the arctic sea ice loss increasing rainfall over northern europe
  • crop failure due to late spring and severe winters in Canada and northern/western europe: due to weakening jetstreams around the poles allowing cold air to flow further south and disrupting the Atlantic climate
  • a massive el nino causing drought and crop failure in Australia and latin America: obviously this is completely unrelated to global warming but the chances of a switch to el nino over any 5-10 year period are very high, and in a warming world the next el nino is going to be associated with some very unpleasant high temperatures
  • a random failure of monsoon or rainy season in east or southeast Asia: also (probably) not global warming related, but for example this year Japan’s rainy season – important for its rice crop – is already late and showing no signs of starting

In combination, these effects could lead to a huge loss of wheat, rice and corn crops in several major food producing nations. The likelihood is that the full global implications of the failure would not be understood until after the northern hemisphere harvest, by which time (maybe) the crops for the following season would already be laid down in the southern hemisphere. Even if governments were quick thinking enough to see the risk for the following year and mandate changes in crops, this would mean the southern hemisphere would have wasted a lot of arable land on non-essential plantings. Of course, the chances that governments would respond in time to the crisis to be able to mandate planting of only essential crops are pretty small, and although price signals might encourage some farmers to switch to essential crops, it is likely that this would take more than a year to happen – especially given the highly protected nature of agriculture in most parts of the world. So after the initial food collapse shock it is likely that there would be a second year of weak harvests, even if the weather turned good. Collapses in wheat and corn crops would be followed by a glut of cheap meat as farmers killed off unprofitable herds; the following year would see a spike in meat prices (I think this happened this year, actually).

What would a generalized agricultural collapse look like?

The collapse would likely be seen in the most vulnerable nations first, most likely those countries with limited food security and heavy subsidization of food prices. I think a lot of these countries are in the middle east and there have already been suggestions that the Arab spring was related to food markets. Jared Diamond famously blamed the Rwanda massacre on pressure for farmland, and other historians have suggested an economic imperative driving the holocaust. Even where it is not obvious, pressure over food and food prices can lead to political instability, upheaval and chaos, and this will likely be the first symptom of the collapse, as prices rise and food importers in the middle east respond rapidly to the collapse of stocks. Unfortunately, market liberalization doesn’t happen quickly and in any case, in the face of a general loss of supply there will be no solution for these countries: they will fall into an increasingly desperate round of riots and political upheaval, and possibly also major population movements.

Following internal tensions in the most food insecure nations, international tensions will begin to develop between major traders and their clients. Faced with generalized crop failures in major wheat trading partners, countries will try to find new markets, but some of these (such as Australia) will also be facing lost supplies, and will likely restrict trade to ensure security of domestic supply. This would lead to tensions between trading partners, followed by a desperate scramble as countries like the UK and Japan rushed to secure supplies. The first casualty of these efforts would be the poorest nations, who would suddenly find food suppliers deserting them for lucrative western markets. At its worst this could lead to riots, seizure of property, and expulsion of businesses and representatives from high-income nations. Emergency food aid would also collapse as countries conserved resources, and this would lead to famine and disaster in countries like North Korea and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as countries newly thrown into food insecurity – especially poorer middle eastern countries like Yemen and Iraq.

Finally, as food reserves dwindled, tensions would rise between high income nations as they competed with each other for food supplies. Particularly, the EU, Japan and China would run into conflict as they sought to outbid each other for the remaining food supplies from the Russian breadbasket areas and the Americas. In southeast Asia, piracy would become commonplace, as it also would around the horn of Africa, and the second-tier powers would probably finance or trade with pirates as an alternative to direct conflict with the major powers. To protect these sea lanes countries with traditional rivalries – such as Iran and Iraq in the Gulf, and China and Japan in Asia – would have to send expeditionary forces. Although Japan currently has the ability to defeat China on the high seas, a war over something as fundamental as food is one of the few situations where China might be willing to deploy its nuclear arsenal. Imagine also what would happen if America suffered a general crop failure due to widespread drought, but Canada’s crop failure was only partial…

Small countries with the ability to protect their borders and a smart farming community or government could stand to benefit from these changes, however. For example, a small country with no bad weather that responded rapidly to food collapse by switching from cash crops to high-intensity farming of a particular food supply could feed its own community and potentially make huge amounts of money selling to major trading partners; in such a case, for a developing nation, centrally mandated rationing and calorie restriction could enable a huge accumulation of wealth through trade that could completely change the country’s future. On the other hand, countries in such a situation who are near a major regional power might suddenly find themselves annexed and subject to strict rationing as the regional power confiscated the fruits of their clever planning.

In the broad, we would see major famines across much of Africa and the middle east, and for the first time in perhaps 50 years we would see generalized famines outside of a small region of Africa, including potentially on other continents. Political upheaval and chaos in the middle east and parts of southeast Asia would bring down governments and lead to major population movements. Piracy and low-level national conflicts, as well as breakup of unstable nations, would lead to violence and conflict on a large scale through complex regions like southeast Asia or East Africa. Finally, there would be the risk of major conflict between the high-income nations, ending in nuclear attacks if the collapse was broad enough.

I think this would be quite a good campaign setting … but let’s hope it stays in the realm of the imagination …