Experts find food riots are possible in the United Kingdom as climate change ramps up. From Cambridge Aled Jones outlines how food stress boils over. Around the world, crops may not be planted or harvested when it gets too hot to work outside. From Columbia University, Connor Dunn Diaz reports. Dr. Vanessa Andreotti on final care for an Age on life support: – “Hospicing Modernity”.
A MESSAGE FROM ALEX
Major news outlets are laying off journalists. Some alternative press folded this year. We need listener-supported independent journalists now more than ever. The Radio Ecoshock bank account is getting low again. The show will go on – I will just be working nervous about replacing studio equipment, paying server costs for all the free downloads, just paying the bills including paying for a few paywall sites needed to track climate and the environment. If you can contribute please do.
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WHEN WILL FOOD RIOTS COME?
Dozens of experts say food riots could erupt in the UK within the next 50 years, and maybe in the next ten. Is it possible? As in many countries, the population was shocked at the fragility of food in early 2020 COVID shutdowns. Food prices are still high, and 2023 bad weather damaged UK crops. We all need to know about food security as the climate shifts.
Dr. Aled Jones is a member of the Science Advisory Group for the UK Global Food Security programme. As Director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, Jones is Lead Author is a big new expert survey on UK food. In October, they published “Scoping Potential Routes to UK Civil Unrest via the Food System”.
A real food crisis bringing rioters out on the streets in the UK hasn’t happened for a hundred years. Aled Jones advised the UK government on food security. He was part of the the UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food Resilience. Jones and his colleagues checked hard data – but they also interviewed dozens of experts in the field, including those in business, government, academia and the non-profit sectors. Many think food riots will hit the UK in the next 50 years, and quite a few think it could come in the next ten years. It is pretty shocking stuff from people in the know.
Adding to expected crop failures as heat waves and drought roll over key breadbasket regions, we have the fragility of public expectations in the developed world. The new paper points to: “the rise in social media and sensationalist journalism and with a public expectation that one should be able to buy anything, more or less at the same price, at any time of year…” Will people leave their game consoles and screens for the streets when they run out of a favorite snack or beer? This is a new scene, a new population. We don’t know what the food trigger points will be.
Can any one country feed itself? Maybe a few, like Canada or the United States who export food. But again the population would have to accept and adapt to a huge change in diet. They may not starve, but express rage anyway.
THE CASE OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
The United Kingdom struggled to feed itself during World War Two, still getting some food from the colonies. It took massive social agreement and coordination. There were about 20 million fewer people living on the island in the 1940’s. I’m doubtful the UK could produce enough food during a climate emergency. According to the United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021, in the year 2020 the UK imported 46% of the food it consumed.
The United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021 states:
“The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity. Wheat yields dropped by 40% in 2020 due to heavy rainfall and droughts at bad times in the growing season. Although they have bounced back in 2021, this is an indicator of the effect that increasingly unreliable weather patterns may have on future production.”
HOW FOOD RIOTS HAPPEN
You don’t have to run out of food for food riots to happen. Many of the experts consulted thought riots might come because of distribution problems instead of absolute shortages. There could be food in warehouses, or even stores, but too many people can’t afford the food they need. Or a fuel shortage could stop the trucks. These days there are fewer warehouses. Most of the food is stored in the arriving trucks. Interrupt those and supermarket shelves are bare within days.
The new paper with our guest Aled Jones says:
“The food system has been highly optimised for efficiency, sometimes with little or no redundancy at individual nodes, and with a high degree of temporal coordination (“just-in-time” delivery). The vulnerability of the food system has been pointed out by multiple experts over the past few years (e.g., [11,12,13]) and was laid bare for all to see during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In fact, they looked at a lot of food threats, from low-probability to high:
“These could be triggered by a mass computer virus attack or a large release of plasma from the surface of the Sun (coronal mass ejection) disrupting electricity grids and communications. Short-term impacts on food supply can include a shortage of transport fuel, strikes and protests or major flooding across the road infrastructure.”
We have listeners all over the world, many of them concerned about their own food system. Is the UK a special case due to the interruptions caused by Brexit, the country’s exit from the European Union? Aled says every country has their own unique food challenges, but the overall picture with steep climate change is lower crop production and possibly bad years where starvation returns in some parts of the world.
The definition of a “riot” used for this new study is substantial. They assume 30,000 injuries during the riots. What if 30,000 people are “injured” not by the violence of the crowds, but the violence of authoritarian reactions? We think of deafening sound cannons, tear-gas, water cannons, even live gun fire. That may be followed by incarceration without due process or after care (like providing water and food). Does that ever come up in the government advisory panels?
Are food riots inevitable at some point as people starve? There are scenarios where the same food breakdowns may not create mass riots. Consider food shortages during a deadly pandemic, or fear of bombardment. During the Irish potato famine of the 1840’s, people rioted at first, but then their anger turned to despair. We know many survivors left the country for the “New World”.
Are riots always bad, always leading to a more broken society? Or can riots be cathartic, like revolutions needed for new circumstances? See this article in Atlantic magazine: “When Rioting Is the Answer”.
In this century, aside from Bangladesh, most food riots have been in North Africa. The 2022 crisis in Sri Lanka was partly due to food and energy shortages. But again, there has not been a food riot in the UK for over a hundred years. So the population has no experience. Does that make it harder to predict what comes next?
FINDINGS OF THIS PAPER: It will be climate…
The paper “Scoping Potential Routes to UK Civil Unrest via the Food System” finds:
“Extreme weather (including storm surges, flooding, snow, drought)” was the most common response across both scenarios and both timescales, with over two thirds of participants choosing it in every case.”
Almost half the experts consulted thought civil unrest on that scale was unlikely in the next 10 years, but it was more possible within the next 50 years. There may be interesting social/psychological biases at play here. Humans think catastrophe won’t come soon, but could come later. But disaster often surprises almost everyone. If we did an expert survey in 1928, how many would rate the risk of a financial crash and mass unemployment as “likely” in the next 10 years, even though they though find it more likely in the next 50? The reality was one year away.
About a third (38%) of experts surveyed for this study thought that scale of civil unrest was possible in the next 10 years, and only a tiny minority (3%) thought it “very likely”.
Despite many papers pointing to global food risks, most of the experts are still pretty optimistic. A majority of respondents thought a food distribution problem would be a more likely cause of civil unrest rather than a real food shortage.
CASCADING TRIGGERS, RATHER THAN ONE EVENT
Quoting from the paper by Aled Jones et al.:
“Finally, several participants highlighted that a single causation acting as a trigger by itself is less likely than a number of the causes acting in an interconnected, as well as cascading (one cause can then trigger another), way. Therefore, scenarios can be compounding.
An extreme weather event, for example, could lead to ecological collapse or impact transport infrastructure, and the likely pathway to catastrophe will include feedback between events, with unrest building up over time. As one participant highlighted “something happens, markets panic, governments panic, debt/inflation goes up, geopolitical tensions ramp up then when the next thing happens everything is more jittery”.
AND “The Risks of Multiple Breadbasket Failures in the 21st Century: A Science Research Agenda” (free .pdf download).
THE WORLD BANK HAS A FOOD RIOT DATABASE…
You can check out this food riot database from the Food Price Crisis Observatory from the World Bank
Civil Unrest Index. Verisk Maplecroft. 2023. Available online: https://www.maplecroft.com/risk-indices/civil-unrest-index/
TOO HOT TO WORK THE CROPS
CONNOR DUNN DIAZ
Do you feel nervous about the food supply in coming years – as the climate goes into extremes? Here is a new wrinkle. The weak link in the global food chain stretching to your door is human. Agricultural workers are facing deadly levels of heat and humidity – right when they need to plant or harvest crops feeding billions of people.
To find the risks in a warming world, a Columbia University undergraduate student teamed up with scientists at the university’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. They just published the paper: “Increased extreme humid heat hazard faced by agricultural workers.” We reached the Lead Author Connor Dunn Diaz.
We’ve done programs on food security, but most of the concern was about plant survival. We’ve been told rice is already near the top of it’s heat tolerance. Wheat and corn can only take so much. This week Connor Diaz tells us about the weak human link in the chain that feeds everyone.
Most weather watchers are looking for absolute high temperatures. Mass media only recently includes humidity, for the “feels like” temperature. A 2020 study led by Pinya Wang found “Extreme high wet-bulb temperature is more sensitive to the changing climate than extreme high dry-bulb temperature”. Hot and humid events are intensified by global warming more than those high dry days. Are we still looking for the wrong risks?
Until the last few years, we were told 35 degrees C wet bulb temperature was the ceiling to avoid. But actual health and death records for field workers out in the sun is much lower. In October I interviewed Daniel J. Vecellio, a Post Doctoral Scientist at PennState. His study, based on human trials showed the body’s tolerance for heat and humidity was much lower. This study assumed 27 degrees C wet bulb as a limit for physical work in the fields.
Here are some of the serious findings by Diaz et al.:
“We find that rice, an extremely labor-intensive crop, and maize croplands experienced the greatest exposure to dangerous humid heat (integrating cropland area exposed to >27 °C wet-bulb temperatures), with 2001–2019 mean rice and maize cropland exposure increasing 1.8 and 1.9 times the 1979–2000 mean exposure, respectively.”
The team also found the number of days of outdoor worker exposure to hot and humid events goes up dramatically and peaks during an El Nino event (like the one we have now).
Surely humans will find answers. They can work at night, or retreat to cooling huts periodically. Maybe robots can do the work. But given the scale, hundreds of millions of agricultural workers, there will be limits to how far we can adapt, and how fast. I think if those agricultural areas, from rice paddies in East Asia to maize/corn in Pakistan fail, we should expect local breakdown and likely more migration to cooler, drier places. Food quickly becomes a geopolitical issue, including immigration.
ALEX THINKS: Looking at the results, only three things could happen:
1. they keep harvesting, accepting disability and deaths in a high percentage of workers
2. fewer crops are harvested, leading to local hunger, or international shortages for export crops
3. millions of people chose to migrate, or have to migrate.
I predict all three will happen as the world continues to heat up.
COLUMBIA PRESS RELEASE HERE
AL GORE ON COP28
COP28 is now on the verge of complete failure. The world desperately needs to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but this obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word. It is even worse than many had feared. It is “Of the Petrostates, By the Petrostates…
— Al Gore (@algore) December 11, 2023
“HOSPICING MODERNITY” with Dr. VANESSA ANDREOTTI
Modern life reaches the fatal limits of the planet. Dr. Vanessa Andreotti is lead author of the book “Hospicing Modernity”. In this radio selection Vanessa talks about the book and the University of British Columbia report “Moving with Storms”.
Vanessa Andreotti is Dean of the Faculty of Education of the University of Victoria. Her book is “Hospicing Modernity: Facing humanity’s wrongs and the implications for social activism” (2021) This selection for radio comes from her presentation July 21, 2023, posted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
We are out of time. Please don’t forget to donate. I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening – and caring about our world.