These are the American cities most vulnerable to ‘food shock’
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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,
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Coal's staying power
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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
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