For the past few years, scientists have been frantically sounding an alarm that governments refuse to hear: the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008.
While financial collapse would have been devastating to human welfare, food system collapse doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet the evidence that something is going badly wrong has been escalating rapidly. The current surge in food prices looks like the latest sign of systemic instability.
Many people assume that the food crisis was caused by a combination of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. While these are important factors, they aggravate an underlying problem. For years, it looked as if hunger was heading for extinction. The number of undernourished people fell from 811 million in 2005 to 607 million in 2014. But in 2015, the trend began to turn. Hunger has been rising ever since: to 650 million in 2019, and back to 811 million in 2020. This year is likely to be much worse.
Now brace yourself for the really bad news: this has happened at a time of great abundance. Global food production has been rising steadily for more than half a century, comfortably beating population growth. Last year, the global wheat harvest was bigger than ever. Astoundingly, the number of undernourished people began to rise just as world food prices began to fall. In 2014, when fewer people were hungry than at any time since, the global food price index stood at 115 points. In 2015, it fell to 93, and remained below 100 until 2021.
Only in the past two years has it surged. The rise in food prices is now a major driver of inflation, which reached 9% in the UK last month. Food is becoming unaffordable even to many people in rich nations. The impact in poorer countries is much worse.
So what has been going on? Well, global food, like global finance, is a complex system, that develops spontaneously from billions of interactions. Complex systems have counterintuitive properties. They are resilient under certain conditions, as their self-organising properties stabilise them. But as stress escalates, these same properties start transmitting shocks through the network. Beyond a certain point, a small disturbance can tip the entire system over its critical threshold, whereupon it collapses, suddenly and unstoppably.
We now know enough about systems to predict whether they might be resilient or fragile. Scientists represent complex systems as a mesh of nodes and links. The nodes are like the knots in an old-fashioned net; the links are the strings that connect them. In the food system, the nodes include the corporations trading grain, seed and farm chemicals, the major exporters and importers and the ports through which food passes. The links are their commercial and institutional relationships.
If the nodes behave in a variety of ways, and their links to each other are…