Withstanding climate change: Food system organizations need strengthening, says US study


07 Dec 2018 --- US researchers are highlighting how organizations involved in the food system need to be better prepared to respond to the disasters caused by extreme weather events as well as acute disruptions caused by civil unrest and cyber attacks. Businesses and organizations involved in growing, distributing and supplying food must be able to withstand and rebound from these types of risks in a bid to improve resilience. This latest study closely follows an in-depth report last week from some of the world’s leading science academies warning that the global food system is “broken” and “collective action” is urgently needed to avert a climate change catastrophe.

Climate change and its impact on the food supply chain continues to be in the spotlight as world leaders recently met in Buenos Aires for a G20 summit to discuss, in part, trade agreements and the Paris Agreement. Nineteen out of 20 world leaders pledged to fight climate change, while US President Trump remains in opposition to the 1,600-page National Climate Assessment, which details the US federal government’s most up-to-date analysis on the state of climate change in North America.

As weather events such as drought, floods, extreme heat become more common and more extreme due to climate change, it’s clear that as 2018 draws to a close, environmental concerns remain center stage.

The latest study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reinforces the message that food systems and the organizations behind them can be vulnerable. 

The study highlights characteristics of organizations involved in the food system that may lead them to be more prepared to respond to such disasters and opportunities for local, state and federal organizations to improve resilience across the urban food system.

Such threats also include cyber attacks, like the one earlier this year which caused huge business interruption to Maersk, the world's largest container ship and supply vessel operator. Lost revenues were estimated between US$200 and US$300 million.

Researchers wanted to explore the following issues: what factors may be associated with organization-level food system resilience? How might these factors play out in disaster response? How do they relate to organizations’ confidence in their ability to withstand disruptive events?

Representatives of 26 businesses and organizations in Baltimore that supply, distribute and promote access to food were interviewed and the organizations were asked about how they have tried to prevent, minimize and respond to the effects of disruptive events such as snowstorms and civil unrest in the past and how they plan to address similar challenges in the future.

Researchers identified several factors that influence how resilient an organization is during times of emergency. They found that the organizations able to recover more quickly had ten characteristics in common: formal emergency planning staff training, reliable staff attendance, redundancy of food supply, food suppliers, infrastructure, location, and service providers, insurance and post-event learning after a disruptive event. 

Organizations that were large, well-resourced and affiliated with national or government partners tended to display more of these characteristics.

What makes climate change even more poignant in the US are the recent forest fires in California which claimed so many lives and caused massive destruction to homes and communities. The 2018 wildfire season is the most destructive wildfire season on record in the state causing more than US$2.975 billion in damages. Recent research on wildfires in California, published in August by the University of California and Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, predicts an increase in the number of wildfires as a consequence of climate change.

Meanwhile, large parts of the country are suffering drought while there has been extreme rainfall in the Midwest for instance. 

Parts of Europe have also been suffering drought this year which has impacted agricultural crops. The European potato harvest was at a historically low level this year presenting a massive challenge for growers, processors and their customers. Due to the crop failures in potato fields, some of which were total failures, the availability of potato products was significantly reduced. 

The European drought has also caused significant damage to wheat, maize and barley crops this year, as weather conditions affected quality as well as volumes. 

Resilient food systems needed

The authors of this latest study concluded that more resilient food systems are needed in order to ensure all people have safe and reliable access to food following both acute and longer-term crises. They highlight several critical areas for targeted intervention by local, state and federal governments, such as creating opportunities for smaller, less-resourced organizations to share information and pool resources. 

Further research is also needed, say the authors, in order to reach a better understanding of what is needed to improve food system resilience in the face of ongoing and growing threats. Such threats also include cyber attacks, like the one earlier this year which caused huge business interruption to Maersk, the world's largest container ship and supply vessel operator. Lost revenues were estimated between US$200 and US$300 million.

By Gaynor Selby

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