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The domino effect of climate threats on food supply chains

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New research from the University of Sydney has shown how climate change and extreme weather events can impact on food supply chains. 

The multidisciplinary research published in Nature Food identified potential cascading repercussions on income, food and nutrient availability.  

Led by Dr Arunima Malik from the Integrated Sustainability Analysis (ISA) group in the Faculty of Science and the School of Business, the paper analysed different sectors and regions in Australia. It found impacts across communities, with rural regions pegged as the most adversely impacted. 

The study also found that events like cyclones, floods, bushfires and heatwaves could affect surrounding areas by limiting food availability and employment. The effects could even be felt in distant regions due to the complex interconnectivity of modern supply chains.

The researchers developed an integrated modelling framework to trace how reductions in food supply also impact non-food sectors, such as transport and services. 

“Climate change can directly impact our economy, livelihoods and health,” Malik said. 

“Our study has sought to model the indirect supply-chain repercussions of these events to bolster our understanding of interconnected supply chain networks and to promote climate preparedness.” 

Previous research undertaken by the Integrated Sustainability Analysis group showed that a localised disaster (such as a cyclone in Queensland) can impact every other Australian state, resulting in losses across primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. 

The modelling also found that such impacts could lead to localised food price increases and diminished food quality, with poor households faring worse than affluent counterparts even in the same area. 

“Disruptions to food supply can negatively impact diet quality, through reducing the variety that contributes to a balanced diet, diverting diets to unhealthy processed foods that have a longer shelf life,” co-author Professor David Raubenheimer from the Charles Perkins Centre said. 

“This disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups, who do not have the means to pay escalating prices for scarce fresh foods.” 

Co-author Dr Sinead Boylan, a public health nutrition researcher in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, added that the “research findings could help inform mitigation strategies to help these communities adapt.” 

Impacts on food production would also lead to an impact on employment and income losses not just in the food supply chains, but also in the transportation and service sectors.  

A methodology that integrated a nutritional framework with regional supply chain impacts and employment and income loss models provided a holistic view for the research. 

“Frameworks such as this could well be used to inform decision-making processes by governments and other organising bodies. It is vitally important that communities and organisations have an awareness of these impacts to encourage better mitigation planning and climate change resilience,” Malik said. 

“The cascading effects, generated by continuing climate variability and more frequent extreme weather events, not only disrupt supply chains, but may also trigger zoonotic diseases, foodborne epidemics, and broad socio-demographic stresses, including inter-regional migration and social unrest. It’s vital that we understand these impacts so we can build a more resilient society.” 

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