How climate change will disrupt our food supply chains and drive inequality

We know that climate change will affect food production. But how far down the supply chain are impacts likely to fall?

Australian researchers have modelled the effects of climate change and extreme weather on supply chains across the country.

According to the modelling, rural communities will find it hardest to cope with disasters, while affluent people will be least affected.

The modelling is published in Nature Food.

“Climate change can directly impact our economy, livelihoods and health. Disruptions caused by extreme weather events can cascade across regions and sectors, resulting in job and income losses and impacts on food availability,” says lead author Dr Arunima Malik, a researcher at the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis group.

“Hopefully the findings will be used for coming up with strategies for mitigating the impact – not just on the economy, but also on communities.”

Malik and colleagues used input-output tables from Australian Bureau of Statistics data to chart Australia’s food supply chains.

“These input-output tables essentially provide a snapshot of the economy,” says Malik.

The researchers then used this data to construct a database of the economy that worked at a regional scale.

“This regional database was developed in the Industrial Ecology virtual laboratory,” says Malik.

“We coupled this with the Household Expenditure Survey, and nutritional composition database to look at how employment and income are affected by a range of scenarios that we model for extreme weather events, climate change, and how these events also impact the food availability and nutrient availability – not just in the directly-hit regions, but also indirectly in the supply chain.”

In total, this work has taken around three years, according to Malik.

“What plays out globally seems to play out locally as well,” adds co-author Professor Manfred Lenzen, a researcher in sustainability research also at the University of Sydney.

“Everyone is affected by climate change, even if they’re not in areas directly hit by extreme weather, and the vulnerable are affected most.”

The modelling shows that extreme weather events like cyclones, floods, bushfires and heatwaves can result in drops in food availability or employment in distant regions.

“We looked at vulnerability as the ability to cope with a disaster. And that’s determined by socio-demographic characteristics,” says Malik.

“We did find that, of course, when we have a disaster, there are price increases, because of reductions in food availability. These price increases then lead to consumption losses. And these consumption losses can vary in terms of where you’re located in the region, and your income level.

“So high-income households have more of an ability to cope with the effects of reduced availability of food. Because they are able to meet high prices.

“Low-income people and those in rural areas are more affected by the effects of climate change and extreme weather.”

For more on food supply chains, watch our Cosmos Briefing: The Future of Food

A second study by a separate team of researchers, published in One Earth, has found a similar inequality plays out on a global scale when it comes to wheat production.

The research finds, surprisingly, that global wheat yields are likely to increase slightly in a 2°C warmer world. But the increase won’t be uniform across wheat-producing regions, and there will still probably be a price increase in wheat.

“This counterintuitive result is initially driven by uneven impacts geographically,” says lead author Tianyi Zhang, an agrometeorologist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“Wheat yields are projected to increase in high-latitude wheat exporting countries, but show decreases in low-latitude wheat importing countries.”

“These results would potentially cause a larger income gap, creating a new economic inequality between wheat importing and exporting countries,” adds co-author Taoyuan Wei, co-author and economic scientist at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research, Norway.

Australia, as a high-wheat producing country, is likely to benefit from this inequality.

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