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Natural Environment

Food security in a warming world: Key points from our recent webinar

How can the global food supply chain be futureproofed against geopolitical shocks and extreme natural events? Can production processes be optimised for higher productivity and lower emissions? And how might technology provide a solution?

World Built Environment Forum
19 August 2020

First, the good news…

Food prices have remained fairly stable through the Covid-19 crisis, with no sign of the kinds of drastic price increases that shocked markets in 2007-08. Back then, the surging price of rice, corn and other staples led to civil unrest across vast swathes of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib, Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme at the University of Cambridge notes that, so far, we have seen no similar events. “One good thing about the Covid-19 crisis is that it has shown the resilience of the modern food supply chain.”  

…and the not so good news

The ongoing lockdown is likely to further stress a supply chain already severely strained by climate change.

“Because of social distancing, the labour market is struggling to put enough people on the ground to collect, produce and distribute food,” says Dr Habib. Due to comparatively large manpower requirements, livestock farming has been particularly hard hit. Nonetheless, the problem cuts across sectors and geographies: curbs on seasonal migration in the EU, for instance, have hampered fruit yields over the summer.

Because of social distancing, the labour market is struggling to put enough people on the ground to collect, produce and distribute food.

Dr Nazia Mintz Habib
Director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme, University of Cambridge

“So far, the shops and consumers have been well supplied,” says Christine Zimmermann-Lössl, Chairwoman of the Association for Vertical Farming. “The real impact will be felt in autumn.”

Climate change is a pandemic too…

So says Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, Chief Sustainability Officer, Majid Al Futtaim Holding. For him, effective collaboration among those countries hardest pressed by planetary warming will be key. “Countries in the middle east and neighbouring regions can boost resilience of their food systems through better integration of agriculture and markets. This is a great opportunity to speed up the economy of the food industry, boost the circular economy, reduce food waste and improve fertilisers.”

…and the combined effects of the two pandemics are felt most acutely by the most vulnerable

Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Resilience and Sustainable Development Programme have monitored the impact of the pandemic in 160 countries. Among their most staggering findings, was the full effect of lockdown on children’s nutrition. “We found that about 80% of the schools were closed across these 160 countries,” says Dr Habib. “That translates to about 87% of school going children suffering from malnutrition. They are not getting access to school meals, which are an important source of food for many children.”

Food security in a warming world

A rapidly growing global population, changing land use caused by urbanisation and an uptick in extreme climate events are all putting pressure on the global food supply chain. While pastoral systems across the world are vulnerable to these factors, the threat is most starkly evident in developing economies. It is bitterly ironic that crop cultivation contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions: the very process of producing food threatens the long-term security of food production. How can the global food supply chain be futureproofed against geopolitical shocks and extreme natural events? Can production processes be optimised for higher productivity and lower GHG emissions? What is the role of technology in the challenge?

The long-term potential of vertical farming is immense…

“We have the technologies available to mitigate the impact of climate change,” says Ms Zimmermann-Lössl. “Vertical farming is independent of climate and weather conditions. We can grow much higher yields. Recently, US scientists have tried to grow wheat in vertical farms. On one hectare, they were able to harvest 1940 metric tonnes of wheat, compared to 3.2 metric tonnes harvested per hectare in open fields. The energy consumption was high, but it is possible.”  

…but it remains an imperfect solution

“A lot of technical knowledge is needed,” accepts Ms Zimmermann-Lössl. “That is definitely a challenge for investors. Another obstacle is that we still haven’t developed any business model that can really make vertical farming economically viable.”