Comment: Ida shows climate’s threat to global food supply

Drought, hurricanes and floods put food production and distribution at increasing risk for disruption.

By Amanda Little / Bloomberg Opinion

As drought continues to punish food producers throughout the American West, Hurricane Ida has reminded us that the very opposite problem — raging storms and floods — not only imperils crop production but can devastate global food distribution networks.

Centralized shipping networks are vulnerable to disruption; one storm in Louisiana can paralyze 60 percent of U.S. grain exports to the rest of the world. It’s the same lesson we learned from the devastating impacts of covid-19 and cyberattacks on major meat processing facilities, which showed that consolidation has made the U.S. meat industry unacceptably fragile.

Again we’re left asking in the wake of disaster: When are we going to get serious about shifting the paradigm?

We’ve seen before what hurricanes can do to national and international food supplies: Hurricane Katrina caused $900 million in agricultural damage, inundating swaths of cropland, killing millions of chickens and thousands of cattle, and forcing dairy producers to dump vast quantities of milk that couldn’t be refrigerated because of power losses. Hurricane Maria decimated 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy, which four years later is still trying to recover.

The coming days will reveal the extent of losses to livestock and the bumper crops of cotton, corn and soy that were growing in Louisiana and surrounding southeastern states before Ida struck, but the infrastructure damage was immediately apparent: In a matter of hours, the Category 4 hurricane impeded exports from one of the busiest agricultural ports in the world.

When Ida pummeled the Louisiana coast, it destroyed docks and export terminals used for agricultural trade, crushed grain storage and processing facilities, shut down agrochemical plants and paralyzed major transport routes for soybeans and corn along the lower Mississippi River.

The Gulf of Mexico is the world’s largest grain export shipping market. Storms that rip through this region also threaten the vital barge transportation system that runs along the Mississippi river, linking Midwestern farmers to the port. More than half of U.S. grain exports are hauled down the lower Mississippi and loaded onto ships that travel through the Gulf; many of them en route to Asia.

Ida has reminded us that this region, a linchpin of the global food supply chain, is vulnerable at a time when global grain supplies are shrinking and demand from China is strong. It serves as a warning to Congress and the Biden administration, who need to examine the weaknesses of a food system that has become so heavily dependent on long-distance trade. Our lawmakers must investigate what it will take to build flexibility and redundancies into food distribution networks, while continuing to support sustainable, climate-resilient farming and incentivizing smaller-scale local and regional food production.

The U.S. imports more than half of the fruit we consume and a large share of our vegetables. We export a fifth of our corn production, half of our soy and rice, and three quarters of our cotton. Overall, U.S. farmers export more than 20 percent of everything they produce. There’s no getting around the fact that vulnerable distribution networks translate into long-term food insecurity and economic volatility.

Long-distance food supply chains are also environmentally intensive. Shipping, in fact, is among the most efficient forms of transport: Air freighting perishable foods like off-season berries typically produces around 10 times more carbon emissions than trucking and nearly 50 times more than shipping.

Yet despite the advantages of shipping, it’s uniquely vulnerable to disruption. We saw this in March when the quarter-mile-long shipping container got stuck in the Suez Canal, halting about 10 percent of global shipping traffic and significantly delaying crop and livestock deliveries.

As President Biden and Congress begin to invest the funds from their gargantuan infrastructure bill, they must do so with an eye toward resilience and redundancy, especially for shipping networks. It will be costly: More resilient distribution networks may require, for example, backup storage facilities, on-site energy sources that can function during blackouts, and alternative shipping and trucking routes when docks are damaged and roads are washed out.

In the near term, there’s good reason to believe that agricultural exports in Louisiana ports will resume their normal volumes within the week. Yet hurricane season in the Gulf region continues for four more months, through the end of November. And the data is clear that climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous.

In the long term, we must remember that climate change is, fundamentally, a disturbance in hydrology. Increasingly, we are living in a world with too much water in some regions, and far too little in others; a world where the pressures to adapt to climate change — along with the weight of our moral obligation to mitigate this crisis — are becoming ever greater.

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, and the author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”

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