Europe: Wargaming a Food Crisis

Via Bloomberg, a report on a group of people who came together last month to tackle the worst-case scenario for one of the best-fed regions in the world:

The combined forces of El Niño and La Niña have crippled Latin American soy output. Ukrainian and Russian grain farmers have gone to war. Indonesia has banned shipments of palm oil to Europe, while China is hungry for crops. The Mediterranean region is getting more like a desert.

The year is 2024. “Food shortage in Europe? The only question is when, but they don’t listen,” says an unidentified voice in a video broadcast. The audience sits quietly — listening.

The dramatic collision of events, of course, hasn’t yet come to pass. But over two days in central Brussels last month, some 60 European Union and government officials, food security experts, industry representatives and a few journalists gathered to confront the possibility of something barely on the radar a few years ago: a full-blown food crisis.

The group sat down in a refurbished art deco Shell building to simulate what might happen, and help design policies aimed at prevention and response. A few streets away, farmers were stepping up their protests against the EU, disrupting supplies to supermarkets as if to sharpen the focus of the participants.

The plush co-working space was hardly a bunker or secure basement in a warzone. But the video images of drought, floods and civil unrest to the pounding beat of ominous 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 may be confused at times and not have enough information. There will be time travel.”

To watch one of the best-fed regions in the world stress test its food system underscores a growing level of alarm among governments over securing supplies for their populations. In the space of four years, multiple shocks have shaken up the way food is grown, distributed and consumed.

The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and disruptions on key shipping routes have disturbed supply chains and sent prices soaring. Erratic and extreme weather now regularly disturbs farming. Against that backdrop, officials are no longer asking when a food crisis may arrive, but rather how many crises they can deal with at once.

Europe Is Home to the World’s Most Food-Secure Places

Finland and Ireland topped the overall global food security table in 2022

Source: Economist Impact, the Global Food Security Index 2022

Note: Places with no data are colored white.

And so, it’s 2025 and there are more harvest failures. They impact animal feed prices, which curbs livestock and fish production. Some ships carrying crops turn away from Europe to cater to higher bidders elsewhere.

Asia’s palm oil export limits are now reducing supplies of daily staples from margarine to bread. Allegations of corporate greed, disinformation and conspiracy theories are spreading.

“The timeliness in terms of the topic was incredibly on point,” said Katja Svensson, a senior food systems adviser to the Nordic Council of Ministers who participated in the simulation. She now wants her region to hold its own. “When it comes to movies, it’s engrossing. You really become part of it, and it has a far greater impact,” she said.

Stress testing has been a common feature in the banking industry since the financial crisis, while government officials and policymakers in the US have done so-called wargaming from time to time, even one involving a pandemic just months before coronavirus struck.

In Europe, government-led exercises are rare, let alone one focused on food, according to Magnuszewski, science director at the Centre for Systems Solutions in Wroclaw, Poland.

Seemingly, Europe is in an enviable position. It’s one of the world’s biggest suppliers of foodstuffs from grains and dairy to pork and olive oil, with some of the lowest levels of food insecurity.

On average, just 14% of household spending went toward food in 2021, compared with some 60% in Nigeria and 40% in Egypt. The Global Food Security Index regularly ranks European countries as the most secure in the world.

But there are vulnerabilities. Weather and climate events are hitting farmers regularly, costing Europe more than €50 billion ($54.3 billion) in economic losses in 2022. The cost of fertilizers and energy needed to grow crops and keep glasshouses running soared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Things unravel further later in 2025. Thieves are looting supermarkets. Police struggle to contain riots spreading in cities. People in Germany can’t find fish and meat at grocery stores. Livestock farmers are going bankrupt.

Meanwhile, the public’s focus shifts to profiteering by commodity traders. Small farms fall like dominos, while attacks on immigrants begin to become more widespread. Is the EU a sinking ship, someone asks in the video? It’s all the fault of “liberal elites,” someone else says.

Europe Relies on Imports of Feed Crops, Vegetable Oils and Fish

EU self-sufficiency rates for selected food products

Source: European Commission

Averages for 2020-2022, Fish data is average for 2020-2021

Now for the solutions. Participants split into groups with each person assigned a new role, from farmer lobbyists to food worker unions. (This reporter played a representative of a trade group for oil plant producers). In circles of four or five with coffee and cookies, the groups workshopped policies from crisis management and building reserves to food provision for the most vulnerable.

Longer term, there are questions over how to curb Europe’s concerning overreliance on imports of crops like soy needed to feed its vast meat and dairy industry. So a taskforce, attended by this reporter, pushed to cut subsidies for livestock farming. Wine and crudités ended the day.

Day two started with a mindfulness session before focusing on policy proposals and any conclusions. There was little objection to the idea that diets need to shift toward healthier options and away from meat. Questions loomed over how best to manage food reserves and monitor the level of stockpiles.

Participants singled out other topics for future exercises, from food safety and bioterrorism to countering disinformation and preparation for animal-borne diseases, the latter being “a huge issue and it risks becoming even bigger,” Svensson said.

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

“We’ve been living in crisis for the last three years,” said Hegadorn, adjunct professor of global food politics at Sciences Po in Paris. “There’s a lot more to be done on every level. Crises are only going to come faster and harder.”

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at