The year is 2026. Flooding, worsened by climate change, has devastated Bangladesh and driven millions of hungry refugees to its border with India. Worried about unrest and disease, India asks other nations for help.
The U.S. and China respond -- China with aid deliveries, the U.S. by boosting aid to Pakistan, which has its own food crisis that’s adding to India’s tensions. That assistance helps India focus on Bangladesh. The crisis recedes.
While the scenario was fictional, two food-price shocks since 2008 have prompted riots and fueled revolutions around the world. Experts say such disruptions are likely to occur more frequently as a warming climate plays havoc with global food production. That fear brought together representatives of corporate food producers, aid groups and governments for two days this week in Washington where they role-played a simulated food crisis. Bloomberg News also participated, representing how media would react to a crisis.
“With climate change, how we deal with food-security threats requires some serious rethinking,” said Kathleen Merrigan, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who participated in the exercise. “The ups and downs of prices and surpluses will only become more extreme.”
In the simulation -- some called it the “hunger games” -- at the U.S. headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund a fictional narrative was created to simulate real dangers that can emerge quickly as an increase in greenhouse gases contributes to volatile weather. In 2011, a real-life drought in Russia fueled food riots in North Africa that fed the Arab Spring uprisings, the aftermath of which reverberates in Syria today.
‘Going to Happen’
The combination of extreme weather and difficult-to-predict political reactions makes a food crisis in the near future likely, said David MacLennan, chief executive officer of Cargill Inc., the world’s biggest agribusiness.
“Something is going to happen,” he said at a forum on food security in Minneapolis last month. “There’s going to be some type of shock or event that will put strain on the food system. It’s inevitable.”
That stability can shift quickly, said Kimberly Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, which didn’t participate in the exercise, called Food Chain Reaction.
“Demand is still growing, and developing nations are seeking better diets. Supplies won’t always keep up,” she said in an interview. “Markets remain tighter than they were, say, two decades ago, and with climate change they’re quite vulnerable.”
This year an El Nino weather pattern is bringing drought to Australia and heavy rains to South America, threatening crops in both regions and helping push world food prices up in October at their fastest pace in three years. Countries increasingly rely on regions where harvests vary widely, such as the drought-prone former Soviet Union, raising the chance of severe swings from surplus to shortage in the space of a year.
Politics can also make bad situations worse. In 2008, concerns over harvests in Asia led three dozen nations to ban food exports, driving up already elevated prices and contributing to more than 60 riots worldwide.
Concern over another shock prompted planners to create the exercise, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. Cargill and Mars Inc., maker of Uncle Ben’s rice, provided funding, along with Louis Dreyfus Corp., DuPont Co., Sealed Air Corp., Thomson Reuters Corp. and others.
The fictional scenario began in 2020, with El Nino devastating crops in India and Australia, followed by a major drought in North America the following year.
Eight teams represented the U.S., European Union, Brazil, China, India, Africa, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank, and global businesses.
Global food inventories declined through the first half of the simulated decade, with the Mississippi River flooding and drought in Asia. Food-importing nations in Africa saw demonstrations against rising food prices, while rising oil prices diverted more production to ethanol, further stressing supplies.
The crisis peaked in 2024, with record food prices generating unrest in Africa, South Asia and Ukraine. Both the U.S. and EU teams decided to repeal mandates requiring ethanol use, while Brazil ramped up production of all crops, including sugar used for biofuels. China invested in dams to protect scarce water.
The EU added a meat tax to discourage expensive livestock production and temporarily relaxed environmental regulations to boost its own production. The U.S. enacted a carbon tax, India taxed coal and support for a global climate deal was universal.
One point of the simulation was to create plausible scenarios to prepare participants to respond to real-life threats, said Kate Fisher, a game director with CNA Corp., a research organization that creates crisis simulations for the Defense Department and other federal agencies.
“It’s planning by doing,” forcing participants to make decisions and react to one another, she said. “We try to make it realistic. The players make it lifelike.”
These hunger games proved to be never-ending.
By 2027, the EU repealed its emergency measures on meat and regulations, as a series of large harvests built up supplies, though trouble persisted in Chad, Sudan and other parts of Africa that hadn’t invested in agriculture. Countries began working more closely with the United Nations to handle refugees from climate catastrophes.
But prices, and temperatures, rose again at the end of the decade, showing how abnormal is expected to be the new normal in food and agriculture.
“It’s important to understand root causes and talking to the different actors making decisions,” said Jim Mize, an exercise participant and vice president for global food packaging with Sealed Air Corp. Mize is working on how to reduce food waste, another issue spotlighted in the games.
Mize, whose company packages products for Tyson Foods Inc., Dean Foods Co. and others, said “Perspectives from others help you understand motivations. That helps you find solutions.”