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These are the American cities most vulnerable to ‘food shock’

July 7, 2021, 3:16 PM UTC

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Hello from London.

What do Beaumont, Texas, and Grand Junction, Colorado, have in common?

When it comes to the risk of “food shocks”, they’re two of the most vulnerable cities in America.

Let me explain. As we know, it’s heat wave season. As Eamon wrote last week, the impacts of extreme heat are once again breaking records and crippling infrastructure. Now, another blast of heat is looming this weekend on the west coast of the U.S., as much of the northern hemisphere bakes. This past weekend, northern Scandinavia was scorching, with Lapland recording its highest temperature since 1914. (An Australian scientist pointed out to the Guardian that the two are linked.)

Heat has impacts on health systems, electric grids—and food. This week, a paper caught my eye on the vulnerability of U.S. cities to “food shock”. That’s the risk that an event like an extreme drought could destroy crops, imperil food supply chains, and lead to dramatic—and unaffordable—spikes in food prices. (It was published in Nature today.)

To map this risk, researchers at Penn State and Northern Arizona University built a model to track the food supply chains of 284 American cities, determining which are the least diverse, and so the most vulnerable to “100 year” shocks (an annual occurrence probability of 1%).

Those shocks were linked largely to drought and other environmental disasters, but also geopolitical, policy and health crises (ahem, COVID-19) that could disrupt supply chains. The study looked at the period from 2012 to 2015—years when the U.S. experienced severe drought both in the Great Plains region and the west, which resulted in crop failure and livestock deaths.

The most vulnerable cities are Grand Junction and Steamboat Springs in Colorado, and Beaumont and Corpus Christi in Texas. On the other side of the ledger, the most resilient cities are Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio; Roanoke, Virginia; and Florence, South Carolina.

Cities in the west generally were more vulnerable to shocks, the researchers found, even though drought-prone California is one of the country’s great food producers. (Los Angeles is an exception; because of its diverse supply chain, it’s less vulnerable than the cities around it.)

“Now that we’re seeing all this stress this summer, those places where the probability of disruption is high, they should be on high alert,” said Alfonso Mejia, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State and one of the authors of the paper.

The vulnerability to food shocks isn’t just city-by-city, or region-by-region (southern Utah and Massachusetts are also highly vulnerable). It’s also within cities. While Mejia points out that food insecurity in the U.S. is comparable to much of the developed world, with 10-12% of the population at risk of not being to afford the food they need, that figure can skyrocket to between 20-40% among lower-income urban populations who feel price rises keenly.

The researchers hope the model can help local cities and regions diversify where their food comes from (and encourage local food producers to produce a wider mix of crops); know when and where to stockpile food for crisis; and create support programs for those who are food vulnerable.

But I was struck that the report hints at one of the paradoxes in how to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. Eating locally, and seasonally, is generally seen as more sustainable—it limits the CO2 emissions associated with transporting food, encourages consuming local and native crops, and builds links between the people who grow the food, and the people who eat it.

But in an age of deep risk—including to our food systems—putting your eggs in one basket (so to speak), can make you even more vulnerable. How does a city, or state, (responsibly) spread its bets?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, two items of housekeeping. There’s still time to submit suggestions to our annual Change the World list. Do you have a suggestion for a company—not an NGO or charity—that is doing good through doing business? Suggest it here.

I’d also like to cop to an error I made two weeks ago, in my essay about climate change litigation. That article incorrectly stated that the total number of cases—1,550 globally and 1,200 in the U.S.—were in 2020 alone. In fact, those numbers were cumulative to July 2020, not for a single year. My apologies!

More news below,

Katherine Dunn


Tropical fires

As the yearly scourge of wildfires begins, even Hawaii—known for its lush tropical forests—has become increasingly vulnerable. This piece tracks the fall-out of the increasing fires, which have jumped four-fold in recent decades, while 60% of the state is currently considered "abnormally dry." More intense rainfall isn't necessarily a help, either: it encourages the growth of invasive species that are particularly prone to going up in flames. New York Times 

Forest fight 

A fight is growing in the EU between the European Commission and the forestry industry over the EC's plans to increase surveillance of the bloc's woodlands—which cover two fifths of the region—and the speed with which they're being harvested. At issue is a central paradox: we need more forests to be planted or preserved to act as a carbon sink—but timber is increasingly seen as a lower-carbon alternative to other building materials, potentially spurring deforestation. Bloomberg

Coal's staying power

As economies recover, demand is growing for the worst offending fuel: coal. Preliminary data shows that coal has met 23% of U.S. electricity demand so far this year, compared to 17% in 2020, when energy demand globally took a hit. Analysts say that's due to increasing demand for electricity—and higher natural gas prices, which make coal more affordable in comparison—even as governments are increasingly pledging to retire coal entirely. WSJ

The asset sale

"One company’s transition away from fossil fuels is another’s opportunity to double down," writes Anjli Raval in this FT long read about the companies buying divested assets from oil and gas majors who have pledged to cut their emissions. Many of these players are smaller, more opaque companies that are better able to evade public scrutiny about their oil and gas production—even as concerns about "stranded assets" in the sector increase. FT


OPEC+ squabble sends prices to 6-year high, threatening to dampen recovery and juice inflation by Katherine Dunn

Porsche to suppliers: shift to clean energy—or else by Christiaan Hetzner

GM invests in California lithium project to power its electric vehicle batteries by Adrian Croft

Leadership Next podcast: Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good on developing a diverse power supply by Fortune Editors

The newest challenges for the sustainable apparel industry by Lindsey Tramuta

COVID forced America to confront its shopping addiction. Can we break the habit? by J.B. Mackinnon

As rivals map their exit strategies, BMW refuses to write off combustion engine cars by Christiaan Hetzner



By 2100, if emissions continue to grow, this is the percentage of the global population that will be exposed to heat waves "hot enough to kill", according to a study in Nature Climate Change quoted in this Rolling Stone story about how unprepared humans are to survive extreme heat. It tracks the vast, cascading impacts of longer and hotter heat waves, from energy efficient buildings that can dangerously trap heat, to potential changes in our brain chemistry. "The whole idea of engineering for extreme heat is still in its infancy," says one scientist.

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