The vulnerability of the food system has been pointed out by multiple experts over the past few years, with multiple interdependencies and connections. A new expert elicitation shines a light on the types of disruption scenarios for the UK over the next 10 and 50 years.
There is growing public, political, and academic awareness of the risk of global catastrophes and the risk of one occurring is driven by numerous processes, with food insecurity having been identified as both a cause and consequence of many catastrophe scenarios. These are themes the WTW Research Network has been exploring through its research hubs, and most recently through serving on the advisory board of a multi-year project funded by an APEX Award from the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society that supports Professor Aled Jones and Professor Sarah Bridle to explore “How to feed the UK amid catastrophic food system disruption''.
This research can inform food system stakeholders with scenarios to feed into in their risk planning, challenge assumptions, and identify needs to support prevention, preparedness, response and recovery planning. The WTW Research Network will share insights from the research, starting with the results of an expert elicitation of 58 food experts drawn from a range of backgrounds that explore two scenario pathways –
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). Meanwhile we are experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events, many driven by climate change, and have seen that different disruptors can compound each other to disrupt supply (e.g. Brexit and COVID-19).
By mapping out potential risks and their possible causes, we hope this report will assist with preparations needed to avoid a UK food system catastrophe.”Aled Jones | Global Sustainability Institute Anglia Ruskin University
“By mapping out potential risks and their possible causes, we hope this report will assist with preparations needed to avoid a UK food system catastrophe.”
Professor Aled Jones Global Sustainability Institute
Anglia Ruskin University
The vulnerability of the food system has been pointed out by multiple experts over the past few years. Any impact on food supply to a particular country or region could be significantly compounded by ensuing disruptions to global trade (e.g. protectionism), or by other events such as pandemics, volcanic ash clouds, wars or local disruptions to key ‘chokepoints’ in global food supply chains.
A serious threat to food production has the potential to lead to civil unrest . Within a single country such food system disruption can be caused by an overall reduction in food supply, or uneven food distribution. For the purposes of the survey a specific definition was provided containing a level of potential civil unrest:
Societal event definition: “Civil unrest has occurred in the UK, as defined by violent injury of more than 30,000 people in one year, due to e.g. violent looting, strikes, demonstrations, or crime including hate crime (i.e. roughly 1:2,000 people are injured, which is x10 greater than the number of injuries in the London riots of 2011 ).”
Experts were asked to identify the most likely types of potential food system disruption scenarios for the UK, focusing on routes to civil unrest.
To explore how these end pathways might be reached, experts were queried using a backcasting approach to ask how each Food System Scenario might have arisen. Multiple-choice options were provided based on the list of drivers from a conceptual model of plausible UK catastrophic risks, with the experts asked to choose up to 3 as the most likely cause of the food system scenario, noting that the causes might have occurred individually or in combination.
“Backcasting is a scenario approach that starts with and end state and offers a number of different strategies to reach this situation. It can enable stakeholders to introduce more imaginative new ideas — opening up dialogue on risk and challenging assumptions.”
WTW Research Network
“Extreme weather (including storm surges, flooding, snow, drought)” was the most common response across both Scenarios and timescales, with over two thirds of participants choosing it in every case. Over 85% of participants chose this option as the cause of insufficient UK food over 50 years. We note that extreme weather disruption can apply to both domestic production and imports although no separation was made in the categorisation in relation to this.
The survey provided space for experts to list other potential causes, beyond those provided in the multiple-choice list. Within the 10 year timeframe several participants highlighted food contamination events (biological, natural chemical or artificial chemical) as a particular concern. Such events have immediate impacts on food availability but also can create wider indirect impacts across the food system. For example, previous food contamination events such as diesel fuel in Spanish olive oil, melamine in Chinese milk powders, or e-coli in organic bean sprouts created direct health impacts on consumers, and alongside other contamination events such as horse meat in meat supplies, lowered trust between consumers and food suppliers.
Over a 50 year timeframe many participants highlighted similar issues to the 10 year timeframe although ecological degradation (as opposed to ecological collapse) including soil depletion, insect populations and water storage were added as a key area of concern. However, both ecological collapse and degradation were seen as regionally specific although if located in areas of high significance for food production they can have a significant impact.
Covid 19, Brexit and the cost of living crisis have shown the UK is already exposed to certain risks. The food system faces significant challenges. We are experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events, many driven by climate change. It is entirely possible that in the coming decades extreme weather will cause major crop yield failures across multiple breadbaskets. We need a food system designed not for optimal efficiency, but for resilience.”Sarah Bridle | Chair of Food,
Climate and Society at the University of York
COVID-19, Brexit and the cost of living crisis have shown the UK is already exposed to certain risks. The food system faces significant challenges. We are experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events, many driven by climate change. It is entirely possible that in the coming decades extreme weather will cause major crop yield failures across multiple breadbaskets. We need a food system designed not for optimal efficiency, but for resilience.
Professor Sarah Bridle Chair of Food,
Several participants highlighted causes arising from wider societal risks including endemic poverty, increased population (through immigration) and an ageing population. Consumer responses during food system catastrophes such as panic buying or hoarding can also act as a feedback on the scale of impact. In addition an increase in the costs of farming inputs (energy, feed, labour), difficulty in securing labour, a move to use land to service carbon or biodiversity markets, or the impacts of trade deals that undermine domestic production, could see a reduction in UK domestic production as farmers leave the industry.
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, and 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”.
Key inputs in the food supply chain are diverse and interface with an array of different markets. Causes for our food supply scenarios are, therefore, not entirely independent; extreme weather events could, for example, affect the availability of migrant labour as well as crop yield. It may also be that extreme weather only threatens food systems when compounded by other, independent hazards. That is, weather events of a magnitude that may have historically generated little detectable influence on food systems could be catastrophic if occurring alongside war or a pandemic.
Disruptions to UK CO2 supplies occurred both in 2018 (as a result of unexpected maintenance and operational challenges for fertiliser plants) and 2021 (as a result of complex economic factors ultimately caused by an increase in the price of natural gas), with impacts felt across the food and drink industry including: abattoirs, chilling, fresh produce packaging, greenhouses, and drinks manufacturers.
All of the survey results were combined into a “backcasting map” (Figure 3) where the line thicknesses are proportional to the number of participants choosing the causal connection. This illustrates the significant shift in perceptions on the 50 year timeframe and the strong focus on extreme weather.
While participants did rank the causes, with extreme weather, ecological collapse and trade restrictions all deemed important, it is clear from the responses, and in particular the free text responses, that participants felt that it is a combination of factors, rather than a single driver that would cause disruption. Additionally, some participants felt that both scenarios (an absolute lack of sufficient calories in the UK and a food distribution problem) are mutually reinforcing. The knock-on from one causal factor to another can create cascading risks, with particular combinations of factors such as extreme weather and degraded ecosystems being reinforced through economic and demographic instability, resulting in trade restrictions and protectionism. Therefore, we see that the conceptual model of the food system from our expert participants involves a complex system with multiple interdependencies and connections.
Governments and businesses need to be ready for multiple scenarios, reactive when the exact situation doesn’t unfold as scripted, and awareness of the art of the possible. The WTW Research Network believes access to research is essential to building resilience and a smarter way to risk. A full copy of the outputs of this research can be found in Sustainability.
This is essential as political and other risks can emerge rapidly, even in societies that have enjoyed stable business conditions for years. There will be enormous reliance on the forces of law and order in those potentially extreme scenarios and, realistically organisations can only work towards mitigating the impacts of such events within reason. Nevertheless, there are actions organisations can take now to embolden their stance and boost their preparedness for the eventuality of civil unrest.
“In an increasingly connected world it has never been more important for businesses to think beyond single risks and solutions. This research supports organisations in understanding the various pathways that might unfold to feed into in their risk planning, and build resilience by identifying needs to support prevention, preparedness, response and recovery planning.”
GB Food & Beverage Leader, WTW
Action points to consider today might be to:
Professor Sarah Bridle and Professor Aled Jones are funded by an APEX Award from the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society AA21\100154 for “How to feed the UK amid catastrophic food system disruption''.