Investigating the Impact of Disasters on Food and Agriculture

Natural disasters threaten the stability of agricultural production, and with the predicted rise in frequency, duration, and severity of disasters, policies need to implement measures of mitigation and adaptation to maintain food security.

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How natural disasters impact world agriculture and future food security

Global climate change is predicted to increase the severity, frequency, and duration of extreme weather events that are referred to as natural disasters. These events include droughts, heatwaves, cyclones and hurricanes, landslides, and storm events, among others.

Such trends are of particular concern due to the population growth and rapid urbanization occurring around the world, which require sufficient areas to reside in as well as stable food production to maintain food security. However, this stability may be threatened by the immediate destruction and lasting impacts caused by natural disasters.

Over the past 2 decades, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has recognized extreme climate and climate variability as a “key driver” for recent increases in global hunger.

Natural disasters impact food security by disrupting agriculture production, food availability, food accessibility, and stability of longer-term food security. Moreover, those living in poverty in both developed and developing nations are especially vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.

Indeed, disasters severely impact food security by damaging communities and infrastructure, existing crops, or potentially arable land, which all affect food production, processing, and transport. Disasters can also raise biosecurity risks and cause epidemics affecting human health, animal health, and environmental health. This has been documented with cases of diarrheal disease outbreaks that occur after hurricanes, with increases of norovirus, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and V. cholerae occurring in evacuees following Hurricane Katrina and documented in a 2007 study by Watson et al.

As such, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has outlined in a 2018 report, the most frequent agricultural impacts of disasters, which include (1) the loss of animals and crops, (2) the destruction of agricultural and rural infrastructure, (3) environmental contamination with pathogens, chemicals, and debris, and (4) negative health outcomes of livestock and crops

However, these consequences and the severity of their repercussions differ based upon spatial, temporal, and socioeconomic conditions, which influence the extent of the impacts from natural disasters.

Food Security

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Identifying areas at risk and factors affecting their susceptibility to natural disasters

The impacts of natural disasters on agricultural production are not equal, with regions around the world experiencing different effects due to crop type, nature of the disaster, the severity of the disaster itself, and importantly, the ability to protect and recover from disasters.

In a 2018 study published in the journal World Development, Klomp and Hoogezand reviewed the economic effects of disasters across 76 countries and including over 70 of the most traded agricultural commodities.

The scientists hypothesized that the capacity for recovery and protection from disasters is unclear as it balances the trade-off between protecting the economic interests of the domestic agricultural sector on the one hand and ensuring food availability for the society at large on the other, which includes ensuring costly import and export activities.

The most important finding of this study suggests that natural disasters diminish overall food production capacity and import activities but increase agricultural trade controls to favor domestic farmers.

However, this also varies regionally as authors found that events such as floods and storms increase agricultural protection in high-income countries whereas trade barriers in many less-developed nations are reduced during periods of extreme drought in an attempt to diminish food scarcity.

On a global level, factors affecting recovery and protection can be determinants of larger-scale economic trends. An FAO survey of natural disasters between 2003 and 2013 showed 25% of disaster-related losses are in agriculture sectors and these losses have a negative impact on agricultural commerce and manufacturing.

These losses were further exacerbated by repercussions on employment and food security due to the reduction in agriculture-related employment and reduced food availability, leading to lower family incomes and inflated food prices. The resulting food insecurity then leads to purchasing less food that is of a lower quality resulting in undernourishment, making populations recovering from disasters even more vulnerable to public health risks following disasters.

Assembling a better understanding of current and future impacts of natural disasters

In response to the documented differences in the impacts of natural disasters, there have been increasing efforts to focus research and ensuing policies on regional scales and focal crop types.

For instance, a study published by Shi et al. in 2021 quantified the losses of crop yield and production resulting from droughts and floods across China during 1982–2012. The researchers focused on key crop types and found droughts and floods significantly decreased wheat yield by 5.8% and 6.1%, respectively.

Across Europe, a 2018 study by Armada-Bras et al., on the import levels of certain crops found extensive impacts from extreme weather disasters on the production of soybeans, tropical fruits, and cocoa, with import weighted impacts of 3, 8, and 7%, respectively. This is of concern for European nations as the EU imports between 35-100% of its consumption of soybeans, bananas, tropical fruits, coffee, and cocoa, and disasters could destabilize such activities drastically.

Policies have therefore focused on adopting measures of mitigation and adaptation to limit the severity of effects incurred from natural disasters. Measures that have been implemented include physical and economic protection as well as the monitoring of weather events and the identification of susceptible areas over time and space.

Such measures increasingly rely upon technological development, which allows past data collection combined with real-time observations to facilitate longer-term predictions. Predictions have also been made more precise with tools such as remote sensing, the use of predictive computational models, and a better understanding of climate science.

Research efforts have also focused on other measures that could protect crops from natural disasters, including the use of genetically enhanced crops less susceptible to droughts or heatwaves, as well as crops that retain more water or are better protected from pests and pathogens.

Disasters can jeopardize the stability of human, animal, and environmental health and well-being with lasting implications on livelihoods and food security. Therefore, it is of key importance to implement adaptive policies informed by empirical evidence to strategize ahead of time. In turn, these strategies may offset some of the repercussions of natural disasters in the future.

Sources:

  • Brás, T. A., Jägermeyr, J., & Seixas, J. (2019). Exposure of the EU-28 food imports to extreme weather disasters in exporting countries. Food Security, 11(6), 1373–1393. doi: 10.1007/s12571-019-00975-2
  • EPA (2018). Agriculture and Natural Events and disasters. Available online at: www.epa.gov/agriculture/agriculture-and-natural-events-and-disasters
  • Gassebner, M., Keck, A., & Teh, R. (2010). Shaken, Not Stirred: The Impact of Disasters on International Trade. Review of International Economics, 18(2), 351–368. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9396.2010.00868.x
  • Klomp, J., & Hoogezand, B. (2018). Natural disasters and agricultural protection: A panel data analysis. World Development, 104, 404–417. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.11.013
  • Otte, M. J., Nugent, R., and McLeod, A. (2004). Trans-Boundary Animal Diseases: Assessment of Socio-Economic Impacts and Institutional Responses. Livestock policy discussion paper No. 9. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization. Available online at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-ag273e.pdf
  • Shi, W., Wang, M., & Liu, Y. (2021). Crop yield and production responses to climate disasters in China. Science of The Total Environment, 750, 141147. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141147

Further Reading

Last Updated: Nov 26, 2021

James Ducker

Written by

James Ducker

James completed his bachelor in Science studying Zoology at the University of Manchester, with his undergraduate work culminating in the study of the physiological impacts of ocean warming and hypoxia on catsharks. He then pursued a Masters in Research (MRes) in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth focusing on the urbanization of coastlines and its consequences for biodiversity.  

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