State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Food Web: Trade Networks May Be Key to Solving Hunger

By Kristen French

food in ethiopia
Photo: Rod Waddington via Wikimedia Commons

Starvation still stalks many corners of the globe today. The number of people who go to bed hungry every night around the world is greater than the populations of the U.S., Canada and the European Union combined. In Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen alone, over 30 million people desperately need food assistance and more than 10 million people teeter on the brink of famine.

World hunger is a systemic problem. While global trade helps many nations meet food demand, it also increases the possibility that climate or other shocks to food production in one country will cross borders. In 2007, spikes in staple food prices led to unprecedented trade restrictions and food riots in developing nations. Today, refugee flows out of food-insecure regions threaten the global political and economic system. Yet policy makers and stakeholders both in the US and abroad have poor understanding of these out-of-equilibrium dynamics.

A project out of Columbia University called ACToday will attempt to fill in these knowledge gaps and ensure that people around the world have access to food even when climate and other disruptions occur. As part of ACToday, Columbia’s Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) has launched an ambitious new global food network analysis.

World hunger is a systemic problem.

The analysis will work to identify points of weakness in the global food trade network, and then craft specific policy recommendations both for local government officials and for global institutions that support these countries, such as the World Food Program and the World Bank Group. Senegal, for instance, is heavily dependent on imports for staple foods—a significant vulnerability—and the analysis of the country’s food system and needs could help CCSR identify more sustainable alternatives. With global food insecurity on the rise, the World Food Program, in particular, is finding its resources stretched thin, and so is aiming to shift its focus away from responding to crises and toward building capacity in chronically food-insecure places.

“If we could just make one small, positive impact in how these institutions work, then it really will magnify the impact of ACToday around the world, because their operations are so large,” said Michael J. Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research.

“This is exactly what I think makes ACToday so exciting and potentially powerful,” said Walter Baethgen, who co-leads the project along with Lisa Goddard, director of Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. In addition to analyzing trade networks, ACToday will characterize entire food systems in six countries, to identify vulnerabilities and opportunities to enhance food security.

In the first stages of the network analysis, Puma’s team is developing “food balance” profiles of the six countries: Ethiopia, Senegal, Colombia, Guatemala, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Each profile will contain information about production of major commodity crops (including harvest area and yield), the sensitivity of those crops to weather and climate conditions, home country consumption and per capita consumption, food reserves, specific import and export partners and crops and transport routes, whether by sea or by land.

Some of the data they have chosen to include seemed counter-intuitive at first, said Puma. For example, Vietnam, Colombia, Guatemala and Ethiopia are all major coffee producers and exporters, so while coffee is not strictly food, if a drought decimated the coffee crop of any of these countries, coffee farmers would be devastated economically, making it difficult for them to buy enough to eat.

The CCSR researchers are also building a model of the port-to-port network of food trade, because disruptions at busy ports—such as blockades, storm-related damage or other disasters—are a huge contributor to food insecurity and famine conditions around the world. Collecting the shipping and port data has been a challenge. There are companies that track, process and analyze data on ship movements, but that is cost-prohibitive in the academic setting, says Puma. Even if you do get your hands on that data, it can be difficult to parse exactly what kind of cargo is on each ship. For now, Puma’s team is collecting information from the individual local ports instead.

Eventually, as food assistance organizations adopt ACToday approaches and tools, the impacts of the group’s work could expand into many other nations. In addition, Puma hopes to use the quantitative network analysis tools to look at the global food network as a whole. Among other things, he and his team will examine how disruptions in food trade might jolt prices in global markets, and how these prices might, in turn, impact the purchasing power of different nations. They will tackle how climate extremes might indirectly affect the food system. In addition, they will take into account external shocks, such as energy crises, policy shifts, trade agreements, cyber-attacks, and civil conflict. Such shocks are especially disruptive if they affect food production in one of the world’s major “breadbaskets,” which supply many nations with food staples.

“We want to understand each country individually, but then we also want to understand how they’re connected,” said Puma. “How is each country in the world dependent upon one another for their food supply?” If they can begin to solve this complicated puzzle, they may have a chance at beating back the scourge of famine.

Kristen French is a freelance writer and editor on science, environment and medicine.

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