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Survey Report | WTW Research Network Newsletter

Catastrophic Food System Disruption Expert Elicitation Survey

By Aled Jones , Sarah Bridle and Lucy Stanbrough | October 25, 2023

Whilst there are many kinds of global catastrophes and the risk of one occurring is driven by numerous processes, food insecurity has been identified as both a cause and consequence of many catastrophe scenarios.
Medioambiental|Insurance Consulting and Technology|Credit and Political Risk|Willis Research Network
Climate Risk and Resilience

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 –

  1. Insufficient UK food scenario and
  2. UK food distribution problem –over the next 10 and 50 years.

Testing food system resilience

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[1]. 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[2].

A serious threat to food production has the potential to lead to civil unrest[3] . 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[4] ).”

Experts were asked to identify the most likely types of potential food system disruption scenarios for the UK, focusing on routes to civil unrest.

Key insight

  • Over the next decade, the average likelihood of such societal events is estimated at 25%. When considering the next 50 years, this likelihood rises to 50%.
  • This highlights the importance for organisations to challenge assumptions over longer timescales. The trap is often to focus on those risks found at the top of lists or within the next business planning window, but by considering risks over extended time horizons risk leaders can stretch their imagination and challenge resilience.

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.”

Lucy Stanbrough,
WTW Research Network

Key insights

“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.

Insufficient UK food scenario

  • For Scenario 1 (insufficient UK food) the next most popular cause was ‘trade restrictions or protectionism’, which was also a common response for the 50 year time period. This likely reflects the relatively high import rate of UK food (estimated at 46%[5]) and the risk of this being curtailed in the event of geopolitical instability or other international food scares.
  • On the 10 year timescale about a quarter of participants also cited ‘animal or plant pathogen’ and ‘financial crash’ as being likely causes in the event of insufficient UK food.
  • The fraction of participants selecting ecological collapse as the cause of insufficient food over the next 10 years was around 20%, but this rose to over 60% for the 50 year timeframe.

UK food distribution problem scenario

  • For Food System Scenario 2 (food distribution problem) and the 10 year time period, 40 to 50% of participants selected “trade restrictions or protectionism”, “transport or other strikes” and “financial crash”, in addition to the 67% who selected “extreme weather”.
  • Around 20% chose “lack of migrant workers”, “breakdown of electricity supply” and “computer virus, rogue AI or similar”. It was perhaps surprising that only around 10% of participants chose “pandemic” despite the disruption that arose during Covid-19, perhaps because of the adaptations that already occurred in the food system as a result of the pandemic e.g. product consolidation and legislation responses to modified labelling.
  • For Food System Scenario 2 (food distribution problem) and the 50 year time period, 9 of the causes were selected by around or above 20% of participants, with “ecological collapse”, “animal or plant pathogen” and “pandemic” becoming important relative to the 10 year period.

Challenge perspectives

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[6].

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.

Interconnected and compounding risks

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[7].

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.

Diagram showing contributory reasons for insufficient food, civil unrest and food distribution problems over next 10 years.
Figure 3. Backcasting map of possible routes to the Societal Event over next 10 years
Diagram showing contributory reasons for insufficient food, civil unrest and food distribution problems over next 50 years.
Figure 4. Backcasting map of possible routes to the Societal Event over next 50 years

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.

How can I prepare my organisation?

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.”

Sue Newton
GB Food & Beverage Leader, WTW

Action points to consider today might be to:

  • Review risk registers and use longer time horizons to challenge assumptions around likelihood and impacts. The link between food shortages and riots is often misunderstood. Indeed, it’s important to note that many of the protests during periods of high food prices (including 2022) were led by farmers who want domestic food prices to be increased. See the WTW Political Risk Index for a deep dive on this topic.
  • Consider scenario planning with executive teams, so they have ready answers to the questions of, “If either scenario happened tomorrow, what would you do?”, allowing for input from each of the organisation’s key functions in this process.
  • Ensure a global perspective when considering your supply chain and business resilience. While your Tier 1 suppliers may be local, those suppliers might be dependent on imports. Working more closely with suppliers as partners can help companies understand their supply chains better and address these risks. Diagnostic mapping and monitoring tools and analytics can help to visualize, quantify and assess risks across the chain and in specific locations.
  • Review your insurance provisions to understand exactly what is and isn’t covered and where the gaps may need addressing ahead of potential losses.
  • Update business continuity plans, IT disaster recovery plans, strategies to cope with staff shortages, and any other contingency plans, and ensure these are shared and understood by key stakeholders.
  • Quantify operational factors, such as stock levels, staff deployments, supplier call-off and the like, assessing how each would be affected in the event of serious disruption.
  • Ensure your crisis response structure is clear and ready to be activated at short notice. Establishing communication strategies, including with media and social media, as well as response and monitoring arrangements.
  • Communicate your readiness for disruption with customers and suppliers, articulating your plans to keep the business on the front foot, even in the event of civil unrest or other crises. This might act a point of differentiation when compared with peers, allowing your organisation to pivot to opportunity more readily.

Acknowledgements

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''.

Footnotes

  1. Lloyd’s, 2022, From farm to fork: rethinking food and drink supply chains: part 2 the food and drink industry, Lloyd’s Futureset, Lloyd’s of London, London, Available online: From farm to fork: Rethinking food and drink supply chains Accessed 21/7/23.

    Garnett, Philip; Doherty, Bob; Heron, Tony, 2020, Vulnerability of the United Kingdom’s food supply chains exposed by COVID-19, Nature Food, 1 (6), pp. 315–318

  2. Betts, R.A. and Brown, K., 2021, The Third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Technical Report (CCRA3), available at: Technical Report accessed: 11/17/2022. Return to article

  3. Bailey, R., Wellesley, L., 2017, Chokepoints and vulnerabilities in global food trade, Chatham House Report, Chatham House, Available at Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade accessed 19/7/23. Return to article

  4. Natalini, Davide; Jones, Aled; Bravo, Giangiacomo, 2015, Quantitative Assessment of Political Fragility Indices and Food Prices as Indicators of Food Riots in Countries, Sustainability, 7 (4), pp. 4360–4385 Return to article

  5. What can we learn from the 2011 riots Return to article

  6. United Kingdom - Country Commercial Guide Return to article

  7. Tse, Y.K., Zhang, M., Doherty, B., Chappell, P. and Garnett, P., 2016, "Insight from the horsemeat scandal: Exploring the consumers’ opinion of tweets toward Tesco", Industrial Management & Data Systems, 116 (6), pp. 1178-1200 Return to article

  8. United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021: Theme 3: Food Supply Chain Resilience Return to article
Authors

Director, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University
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Chair in Food, Climate and Society, University of York
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Head of Emerging Risks and Business Engagement
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