David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme warns the Security Council: a famine of “Biblical proportions” is developing in the 2020 pandemic. Then California author Richard Heinberg works through the fragile food chain and resilient action.

Listen to or download this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)


We begin with David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme, speaking at the U.N. Security Council on April 21st, 2020. Normally announcements from global officials are full of sugar and no content. This former Governor of South Carolina is warning about a horror compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and even more deadly. I’m going to play you Beasley’s 9 minute presentation because it’s worth it. Then we’ll hash through the new food crisis in America and around the world as disease and economic shutdown break down supply lines. Our guest is author and energy activist Richard Heinberg, a driving force at the Post Carbon Institute and resilience.org.

The United Nations press release on this coming famine is here: As famines of ‘biblical proportion’ loom, Security Council urged to ‘act fast’. It’s not just the WFP that is worried. Look at this release from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.


At first, consumers in the West feared a total breakdown of the food system. There was panic buying and many doubters became confirmed preppers. But the food stores managed to remain relatively stocked, although out of some essentials like flour and yeast.

Now with major meat-packing facilities forced to shut down in both the United States and Canada, as they become COVID-19 super hot spots, there is more unease. The CEO of mega-meat-packer Tyson foods wrote “The food supply chain is breaking,” (in full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)

Similarly, chicken, beef and pork processing plants in Canada became hot spots and closed. One suggestion – not checked or verified yet! – is the possibility that domestic meat animals have themselves become infected with COVID-19. That raw meat then infects workers packed tightly together with poor ventilation? Studies suggest cats and dogs, and a wide variety of other mammals, can carry COVID. What if that is true of cows and pigs? If studies show that, there may be a mass slaughter of farm animals and true shortage of meat. I hope someone will study this, and make the results public.

How much should we worry about the world’s food supply, especially during this pandemic? Scary stories are pouring in, but who can speak wisely about such a big picture, not just in America, but in global terms? Just as the United Nations warned of famine in 2020, possibly of “biblical proportions”, Richard Heinberg published his article “Fraying Food System May Be Our Next Crisis”. Richard is a journalist, author of 13 books, a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and a force behind Resilience.org.

Fraying Food System May Be Our Next Crisis

Listen to or download this 47 minute interview with Richard Heinberg in CD Quality (57 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)


I’ve been checking into Richard’s famous monthly newsletter – the “Museletter” – for more than a decade. Heinberg has been publishing it since 1992! Find that at richardheinberg.com,

In the Okanagan fruit-growing valley near me, some farmers are spraying extra fertilizer on the tree buds. That will cause the flowers to fall off before fruiting. The farmers can’t find the migrant workers, so they want to kill off this year’s crop but save the trees. I may have to take my fruit picking ladder to the local farms and pick my own fruit for canning, to get through next winter. It all seems so strange, like we can’t adapt to change.

From outside, it looks like American society is not set up to do well in a pandemic. Unlike every other industrialized nation, America does not have a public health care system, and is not dedicated to feeding it’s own people, even in a time of crisis. There is a deep suspicion about government, millions of high-powered guns, religiosity… unless there is a miracle vaccine or treatment, can America survive its own internal weakness? What will it take for politicians to get the reality of living during a kind of biological warfare, and for the general population to stop dangerous fantasies?

The Governors of Texas and Ohio now warn they will cut off unemployment benefits for workers who are afraid they will get sick in the so-called reopening of business. The Ohio Governor wants business to report any no-shows so they can be cut off. Go back to work, even if that endangers you and your family, or we will starve you out! It is a stunning display of heartlessness, but isn’t it also a sign of desperation? Some wealthy and powerful people are afraid they will lose that elite status and control, and they are willing to gamble with millions of people’s lives to keep the money machine going.

We have just seen news stories from Italy about widespread anger after the lock-down and tens of thousands of deaths. There is a search for “justice”, maybe lawsuits, maybe a reaction against the political class, a strong search for someone to blame. Now imagine all that in America, after a bruising six or eight months, or more, of repeated failed attempts to control this virus. Waves of anger may follow waves of the virus. What does that look like?


Part of this threat comes from the return of Nationalism in America, South America, and even some European countries. If food exporting nations under stress close their borders to agricultural products, then famine will surely hit the less developed world. Russia has already banned wheat exports. When Russia did that in 2010 following their heat event and fires, rising bread prices helped fuel the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

In his article on the Fraying Food System, Heinberg writes:

Hinting at a new trend toward food nationalism, some countries have begun banning food exports. Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top shippers of wheat flour, has suspended contracts, and Vietnam has temporarily stopped accepting new rice export tenders. Serbia has stopped shipping sunflower oil, while Romania has banned grain exports. At the same time, some nations, such as China, are adding to their strategic food stockpiles, thereby removing food from market channels.

The real threat, as the U.N. makes clear, is in the developing world. Many poor countries were already mired in the debt trap. Now plunging oil prices have removed all income for some countries. Food nationalism may shut them out. The result could be that famine “of Biblical proportions”. Put that reduced health and immunity up against COVID-19, and the results could be tragic on an unimaginable scale. In the 1960’s there were big famines, where millions of people died, mostly in Asia. Those have not been seen since, but may appear in 2020.

Despite the dominance of American media, this food crisis is not just about the United States. In January, before the Corona virus struck Africa, the United Nations said 45 million people in Southern Africa face ‘severe’ food shortages. You have the legendary locust plague in the horn of Africa. There was a hunger riot in Nairobi Kenya last week. Venezuelans have been close to starvation for over a year. In war-torn places like Yemen millions are starving and food aid can’t get in. With Corona virus and the break-down of international systems, could we be heading into a population cull?

That is the really big food crisis for 2020. Even if you and your family do have enough to eat, with some modification of diet and expectations, no one can think they will not be impacted, likely for decades, if the global food and aid system breaks down. In these days of mass communication, and likely soon again mass travel, a break down anywhere can rapidly become a threat in other parts of the world. Plus we have the mental health impacts of knowing millions of people are dying.


Richard Heinberg is not just about warnings and threats. His decades of work has aimed toward a better future, including the ground-breaking Post Carbon Institute, and of course Resilience.org. In his “Fraying Food” and in our interview Richard outlines some of the steps we might take as the food system breaks under stress. In just one example, he writes:

At the national level, food price controls have an uneven history of success. However, as Stan Cox details in his indispensable book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, rationing has often worked wonders to stabilize food supply systems. Just one example: the British people were better nourished under food rationing during and immediately after World War II than they were prior to the war or in subsequent decades. The United States rationed during both World Wars, and continues to do so: the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) is essentially a national rationing program for low-income people. Food stamp enrollment has erupted since early March; in just one week, California saw nearly 100,000 new applicants for its SNAP outlet, CalFresh.


With every program during this pandemic, there is too much stunning change to process, and too little stunning change to avoid things getting worse. I guess you and I will just have to take it week by week, and hope we stick around to see how things turn out. Will the reckless get punished by illness and death, or will social dissension kill those who try to save them? Will we rebuild the death economy, make a new sustainable world, or too little of both? Can democracy survive? How about NFL football or trance concerts? It’s a cliff-hanger.

Would you want to just once travel forward in time 5 years to see how this turns out? We do know some things. Radar images from space confirm extra-large volumes of ice are melting off Antarctica and Greenland, pouring into the sea. New hot zones are popping up in the ocean. Record land temperatures are expected this year. With climate change, we mostly know what damage is coming, although we are not sure about exactly when. We do not know what other troubles humanity may face this decade, from the New Depression to possible wars, famine and more diseases. Whatever those challenges may be, they will happen under a hot new sun, strong weather and a rising tide.

We must rise to meet it.

I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening and caring about your world.