Europe is preparing for a food crisis

(Bloomberg) — The combined forces of El Niño and La Niña have crippled soybean production in Latin America. Ukrainian and Russian grain growers went to war. Indonesia has banned palm oil shipments to Europe, while China is hungry for crops. The Mediterranean region is increasingly looking like a desert.

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The year is 2024. “Food shortage in Europe? The only question is when, but they are not listening,” an unidentified voice says in a video broadcast. The audience sits quietly and listens.

Of course, the dramatic collision of events has not yet occurred. But for two days in central Brussels last month, around 60 European Union and government officials, food safety experts, industry representatives and a few journalists gathered to confront the possibility of a phenomenon barely mentioned a few years ago: a real food crisis. .

The group sat in a renovated art deco Shell building to simulate what could happen and help design policies to prevent and respond. A few streets away, farmers intensified their protests against the EU, interrupting supplies to supermarkets as if to attract the attention of participants.

The luxurious coworking space was hardly a bunker or secure basement in a war zone. But video images of drought, floods and civil unrest, accompanied by the pounding beat of menacing music, created a sense of urgency.

“Expect a level of chaos,” warned Piotr Magnuszewski, a systems modeler and game designer who has worked with the United Nations. “You can sometimes be confused and not have enough information. There will be time travel.

Watching one of the world’s best-fed regions put its food system to the test highlights a growing level of concern among governments about securing supplies for their populations. In the space of four years, multiple shocks have disrupted the way food is grown, distributed and consumed.

The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and disruptions on key shipping routes have disrupted supply chains and sent prices skyrocketing. Irregular and extreme weather conditions now regularly disrupt agriculture. In this context, managers no longer ask themselves when a food crisis might occur, but rather how many crises they can manage at the same time.

So we are in 2025 and poor harvests are increasing. They impact feed prices, hampering livestock and fish production. Some ships carrying crops are leaving Europe to respond to the highest bidders elsewhere.

Limits on palm oil exports in Asia are now reducing the supply of essential goods, from margarine to bread. Allegations of corporate greed, misinformation and conspiracy theories are growing.

“The timeliness of the topic was incredibly relevant,” said Katja Svensson, senior advisor on food systems at the Nordic Council of Ministers who participated in the simulation. She now wants her region to hold up. “When it comes to movies, it’s captivating. You really are a part of it, and it has a much bigger impact,” she said.

Stress testing has been a common feature in banking since the financial crisis, while government officials and policymakers in the United States have engaged in war games from time to time, even if they involve a pandemic just a few months before the coronavirus appeared.

In Europe, government-led exercises are rare, let alone those focused on diet, according to Magnuszewski, scientific director of the Center for Systemic Solutions in Wroclaw, Poland.

It seems that Europe is in an enviable position. It is one of the world’s largest suppliers of food products ranging from grains and dairy to pork and olive oil, with one of the lowest levels of food insecurity.

On average, only 14% of household spending was spent on food in 2021, compared to around 60% in Nigeria and 40% in Egypt. The Global Food Safety Index consistently ranks European countries among the safest in the world.

But there are vulnerabilities. Weather and climate events regularly hit farmers, costing Europe more than 50 billion euros ($54.3 billion) in economic losses in 2022. The cost of fertilizer and energy needed to grow and greenhouse operation skyrocketed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Things get even worse later, in 2025. Thieves loot supermarkets. Police struggle to contain riots spreading through cities. In Germany, people cannot find fish or meat in grocery stores. Breeders are going bankrupt.

Meanwhile, public attention turns to the profits of commodity traders. Small farms are falling like dominoes, while attacks on immigrants begin to become widespread. Is the EU a sinking ship, someone asks in the video? This is all the fault of “liberal elites,” someone else said.

Now let’s move on to the solutions. Participants divided into groups, each assigned a new role, from agricultural lobbyists to food workers unions. (This journalist played the role of a representative of a professional group of oilseed plant producers). In circles of four or five over coffee and biscuits, the groups discussed policies ranging from crisis management to stockpiling to providing food to the most vulnerable.

Longer term, questions arise about how to curb Europe’s over-reliance on imports of crops like soy, needed to feed its vast meat and dairy industry. A working group, in which this journalist participated, therefore pushed to reduce livestock subsidies. Wine and raw vegetables ended the day.

The second day began with a mindfulness session before focusing on policy proposals and possible conclusions. There is little objection to the idea that diets need to move towards healthier options and away from meat. Questions loomed over how best to manage food supplies and monitor their levels.

Participants identified other topics for future exercises, from food safety and bioterrorism to combating misinformation and preparing for animal-borne diseases, the latter of which is “a huge problem and one that risks becoming even more more important,” Svensson said.

In truth, few governments in Europe are prepared to handle future food crises, according to Chris Hegadorn, a retired U.S. diplomat who co-organized the workshop.

“We have been living in a crisis for three years,” said Hegadorn, an assistant professor of global food policy at Sciences Po in Paris. “There is still a lot to do at all levels. Crises will only come faster and harder.

–With help from Michael Ovaska.

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