Friday, 27 January 2017

Environmental tipping points and the food system

The RuSource site presents summaries of issues around farming and rural life:
Open Fields - Browse RuSource Briefings
IAGRM - The Institute of Agricultural Management

In their latest list of reports, it looks at how sensitive our food system is:

Environmental tipping points and the food system 

Agri-food systems are subject to potential tipping points in climate, weather, soil health and biodiversity. Even “local” tipping points (for example the possibility of a dustbowl in East Anglia) can prompt food price spikes. 
The present paradigm that trade is typically beneficial is based on the assumption that an open trading system will dampen shocks, and this is true for small shocks. But as potential shocks increase in magnitude, frequency and longevity, the confidence with which this assumption is made may be tested. One potential early warning indicator of an approaching tipping point is increasing volatility. We need to understand the risks of crossing tipping points better.

Open Fields - Technical and Business Information Item:

This is from the full report:

• Environmental tipping points occur when there are step changes in the way the biophysical world works – whether loss of soil fertility, collapse of a fishing stock, or sudden changes in weather patterns, such as those that caused the grasslands in North Africa to become deserts, 6000 years ago. These non-linear shifts arise following a critical degree of change, resulting from either many small cumulative changes or one large shock, “tipping” the system over a threshold and into a new stable state. Entering an alternative stable state is associated with a change to system function, usually being difficult to reverse or “tip” back into the original state. Increasingly we recognise that human-environment interactions are affecting the likelihood that critical thresholds for tipping points will be crossed, leading to step-changes in the provision of environmental goods and services, and impacting upon food security.

• This report provides evidence that tipping points in environmental systems do occur and that they could have significant effects on food security. Agri-food systems rely on the maintenance of function of a wide range of supporting systems (soil, water, climate, as well as biodiversity-related services like pollination and natural pest suppression); sudden changes in function associated with tipping points in climate, weather, soil health or biodiversity may have profound effects, at least at some scale. 

• Extreme events – such as widespread droughts - in the natural environment have been shown to perturb our globally interconnected food markets, and have contributed to food price spikes (in combination with other factors such as export restrictions). Crossing an environmental tipping point has the potential to contribute to market effects in a similar way, but with the perturbation being long-lived or even permanent. Even “local” tipping points (for example the possibility of a dustbowl in East Anglia or a fisheries collapse) can contribute to supply shortfalls and have potential to prompt food price spikes. Global scale tipping points such as collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation could permanently change supply in an unprecedented way, through harsher winters and a strengthening of the winter storm track across the UK and Western Europe, together with hotter, drier and less windy summers. 


The report was put together by The UK’s main public funders of food-related research ... working together through the Global Food Security programme to meet the challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable, secure supply of nutritious food from less land and using fewer inputs:
Home - Global Food Security

It's about trying to square the circle:
New GFS report on Environmental tipping points and food released | SIRN

Is 'sustainable intensification' really possible?
Futures Forum: Low-tech farming
Futures Forum: Sustainable intensification of agriculture: an oxymoron >>> revisited
Futures Forum: How do we grow from here? Towards sustainable food production
Futures Forum: State of Nature: "intensive management of agricultural land had by far the largest negative impact"
Futures Forum: Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”: a centenary

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