Content Warning: This newsletter will speak in frank terms about the possibility of world hunger and starvation. This is a very taxing subject and if you are concerned that engaging with this material will harm your mental health, please do not read further.
Multiple Breadbasket Failure refers to the possibility of several of the world's key producers of cereal crops suffering a significant reduction in yield at once. In plainer English, multiple breadbasket failure means that, whether through human intervention or due to climate change (if you choose not to conflate the two), more than one grain-producing region of the world is hit by a disaster at the same time. While a single disaster in a single region can cause a shock to global prices and do acute harm to particular economies and populations, multiple breadbasket failure is a cause for worldwide alarm, and can create widespread instability.
Breadbasket failure naturally leads to famine, hunger, and often starvation. There are many, many historical examples of famine, and far too many contemporary examples–and always with a human hand to them. We're going to be discussing breadbasket failure and famine rather interchangeably here, though some academics might take exception to that. The truth is that these things are inextricably linked, and while breadbasket failure refers only to the production of a region, this product is food, and there's no way to divorce the subject of food from people.
The Science of Future Famines
The effects of climate change on agriculture have been a major focus of the IPCC and other climate scientists, and their findings are predictable: climate change is bad for agriculture. While politicians who were slow to concede climate change exists will now point to improved yields in new areas of production, the increased temperature across the globe is easily a net negative. And when it comes to breadbasket failure, the science is fairly conclusive. While multiple breadbasket failure is going to, generally speaking, require multiple concurrent disasters, the probability of this occurring rises with the incidence of said disasters.
Boiled down, the ever-increasing odds of any region suffering a large-scale disaster like a drought, major heatwave, or flood, means that region's harvest is at risk, particularly when it comes to vulnerable crops like wheat and corn. As the severity of these disasters rises along with their odds of occurring, so too does the potential severity of a singular or multi-breadbasket collapse. And again, the increase in median global temperature is bad, on average, for crops even in good years. And, again, there are threats beyond climate change for us to worry about when it comes to food, like the eventual collapse of the fertilizer industry, which will be disastrous in its own right.
The world's current answer to breadbasket failure is to utilize more land for growing crops. The trouble here is that we can't grow ourselves out of this hole–the environmental impacts offsetting a breadbasket failure will help ensure that the next is worse. The last link above suggests that nations will frequently respond to crop loss shock differently depending on their level of unfarmed arable land, and they're quick to point out that Brazil mowing down the Amazon is a disconcerting solution. At best it is putting off a debt, which will be collected with interest later. The trouble is that there is no large-scale solution to this issue on its own. "Solve climate change" would be good, if it were possible. But since we can't simply double our farmland without ruining valuable ecosystems and disaster-buffering areas, this is a problem we may have to take on the chin.
The Greatest Predictor of Unrest
Rising food prices are the number one predictor of unrest, so it stands to reason that multiple breadbasket failure will create extreme turmoil across the globe. Famously, poor farming conditions in Syria are said to have contributed to the civil war (though attribution to climate change has been contested). While this NPR piece is from quite a while ago, it does a good job of talking about historical precedent and couching relevant contemporary examples (the Arab Spring, namely). This more recent piece from Foreign Policy echoes those sentiments.
This study points out that climate change is likely to be a driver in further urbanization of the populace worldwide, as people flee disaster-ravaged areas and their weather-dependent jobs for the relative stability of cities. This occurred in Syria, and is likely to occur again and again. This increase in urban population means that the impacts of hunger (and water scarcity in the study) are likely to be focused upon cities, made even more acute, and naturally means the unrest to come will be focused there as well.
A Meal Bought with Blood
We've seen bad harvests in the US before, but there is hardly a generation left alive that's survived a long-term scarcity. The Dust Bowl, of course, was a breadbasket failure that resulted in the migration of hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and it resulted in unrest, persecution, and the exacerbation of the Great Depression. Even under these conditions, very few Americans starved to death, though many, many more suffered from malnutrition that contributed to deaths–many in the Dust Bowl alone likely succumbed to "dust pneumonia" in part because they were malnourished. The fact is that the US is large enough to have been insulated from singular failures, in the same way that the world is insulated, to an extent. But that can change. My point being that, as a people, we will be in uncharted territory should we face severe scarcity and hunger. Though we're well-positioned for the time being, our breadbaskets are vulnerable and becoming moreso. Drought is becoming increasingly common and severe in California, and the Midwest has experienced severe flooding multiple times over the last few decades.
Pervasive, chronic hunger is something that will lead, at first, to an increase in what some would call crime. That crime will be followed by the agitation of the upper class–those still in a position to eat, dismayed at their system starting to fall apart–after which will come police reprisal. We know what will happen after that, and after that, because we've seen it; police violence is answered by the people, which leads to more intense police violence. But because this would not be an issue the majority of the population can turn away from, because hunger of the masses cannot be ignored by the masses, there is the possibility of something more happening. The question is whether or not a movement will arise or whether this cycle will only worsen until we reach a breaking point of another kind, one that sees the government become increasingly authoritarian, lest it lose control and society crumble.
Mitigation and Adaptation
There is no solving for multiple breadbasket failure. We have come to the point where we discuss issues that are truly inescapable, that are without remedy. A punch thrown at your head before you have time to block it is going to land–if you're lucky, maybe you've got time to shut your mouth. There are a lot of punches coming.
The best preparation for breadbasket failure has already occurred–you already did it, already have food stocked and a functioning garden, because starting once you see the failure on the horizon is too late. This is mitigation. Soften the blow by having multiple months-worth of food already in your home. Soften the blow to your community by having infrastructure in place that shares and distributes food. Soften the blow by being as independent of exterior supply lines as possible.
Adapt by becoming entirely independent. I know this is a big task, but this is a big, big problem. And it's not to say that you won't be in a region that suffers from the disaster that begets the breadbasket failure–that's a possibility. But redundancy is our saving grace, so being capable of producing most of your own food, or having local means of it being provided, is key to survival. Ideally what happens in the future is that you, and your community, utilize the land available to you so fully that you're able to feed yourselves. And ideally, you are tied to other, broader, or more distant communities that are able to come to your aid should your breadbasket falter. Ideally we live at peace with one another in a new age, in which we recognize the great trauma we've inflicted on the planet and strive to repair it, over time, together.