Blog Post

Disaster Events Lead to Trillions of Dollars in Agricultural Losses: New FAO Flagship Report Released

Over the past three decades, the world lost as much as $3.8 trillion in agricultural products as a result of disaster events, according to a new flagship report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That equates to a loss of around 5 percent of global agricultural GDP per year and has serious implications for food security, agricultural livelihoods, and the sustainability of the global agrifood system.

The Impact of Disasters on Agriculture and Food Security 2023 is the first report of its kind to estimate the impacts of disaster events, or events that significantly disrupt the normal functioning of a community or society, on the global crop and livestock sectors. The report finds that since the early 2000s, the world has experienced around 400 such events per year, compared to 100 per year in the 1970s. Examples include extreme weather events like flooding, drought, and wildfires, pest and disease outbreaks, and armed conflict.

As climate change continues to drive up global temperatures and put new pressure on the world’s resources, these events are likely to become increasingly frequent and more destructive.

The report also identifies rising poverty and inequality, unsustainable land use and agricultural production practices, conflict and civil unrest, and environmental degradation as underlying drivers of disaster events. Many of these factors build upon one another, creating what the report calls a cascading effect.

Cereal production has seen the highest losses over the past 30 years, averaging 69 million tons per year. Fruits and vegetables and sugar crops experienced average losses of 40 million tons per year, while meats, dairy products and eggs, and roots and tubers all saw average losses of 16 million tons per year.

Losses due to disaster events vary at the regional, sub-regional, and country levels. Over the past 30 years, Asia has consistently experienced the largest share of total economic losses; however, these losses account for only 4 percent of the region’s agricultural value added, compared to almost 8 percent in Africa. Across the board, losses in agricultural value added are higher in low-income countries and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), particularly eastern and northern Africa, the Caribbean, and sub-regions of western Asia and southern Latin America.

Importantly, adequate data to conduct similar assessments specifically for the forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture sub-sectors of the global agrifood sector do not exist. While the report utilizes existing literature and published anecdotal evidence for these sectors and finds them to be at similar substantial risk from disaster events, the lack of data suggests that total losses in agrifood sector may be even higher than estimated.

Stemming the tide of these losses will require identification of and investment in practices, technologies, and interventions that can be scaled to different locations and contexts to proactively increase resilience to disaster events. Farm-level best practices provide a strong pathway for resilience-enhancing activities; examples identified in the report include increasing the use of soil and water conservation practices combined with adoption of drought- and heat-tolerant crop varieties. The report also suggests that countries could successfully scape up these types of proactive risk reduction strategies by building them into social safety net programs.

Anticipatory action, such as national and regional early warning systems, also has an important role to play in mitigating the impact of disaster events. By using forecasting technology, seasonal data collection and observations, and information regarding particular areas’ and populations’ vulnerability to disaster events, policymakers can establish systems that trigger the release of funding for short-term interventions when certain conditions are reached. Evidence shows that such systems can help slow the rise of food insecurity and reduce the need for humanitarian aid.

Policymakers also need to keep in mind the multiple drivers of disaster events, as well as how those factors interact to cause cascading negative impacts on food security, livelihoods, agricultural production, and sustainability in the agrifood sector. Taking a holistic food systems view of disaster risk rather than viewing disasters as singular events will help establish more effective and equitable strategies to reduce those risks.

Finally, the report emphasizes the limitations in existing data and calls for stepping up efforts to collect and improve upon data related to disaster events and their impacts on global agriculture. These efforts include enhancing data monitoring, reporting, and collection methodologies and investing in national data collection and analysis capacities.

Sara Gustafson is a freelance communications consultant.