Assessing the evolving fragility of the global food system

Puma, Michael J.; Bose, Satyajit; Chon, So Young; Cook, Benjamin I.

The world food crisis in 2008 highlighted the susceptibility of the global food system to price shocks. Here we use annual staple food production and trade data from 1992–2009 to analyse the changing properties of the global food system. Over the 18 year study period, we show that the global food system is relatively homogeneous (85% of countries have low or marginal food self-sufficiency) and increases in complexity, with the number of global wheat and rice trade connections doubling and trade flows increasing by 42 and 90%, respectively. The increased connectivity and flows within these global trade networks suggest that the global food system is vulnerable to systemic disruptions, especially considering the tendency for exporting countries to switch to non-exporting states during times of food scarcity in the global markets. To test this hypothesis, we superimpose continental-scale disruptions on the wheat and rice trade networks. We find greater absolute reductions in global wheat and rice exports along with larger losses in network connectivity as the networks evolve due to disruptions in European wheat and Asian rice production. Importantly, our findings indicate that least developed countries suffer greater import losses in more connected networks through their increased dependence on imports for staple foods (due to these large-scale disturbances): mean (median) wheat losses as percentages of staple food supply are 8.9% (3.8%) for 1992–1996, increasing to 11% (5.7%) for 2005–2009. Over the same intervals, rice losses increase from 8.2% (2.2%) to 14% (5.2%). Our work indicates that policy efforts should focus on balancing the efficiency of international trade (and its associated specialization) with increased resilience of domestic production and global demand diversity.


Also Published In

Environmental Research Letters

More About This Work

Academic Units
Center for Climate Systems Research
Earth Institute
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Biology and Paleo Environment
IOP Publishing
Published Here
November 17, 2016


Corrections were made to this article on 9 February 2015. The link to NASA in section 2.2 was corrected.