World Faces 'Perfect Storm' of Problems by 2030, Chief Scientist to Warn
Food, water and energy shortages will unleash public unrest and international conflict, Professor John Beddington
By Ian Sample, science correspondent
In a major speech to environmental groups and politicians, Professor John Beddington, who took up the position of chief scientific adviser last year, will say that the world is heading for major upheavals which are due to come to a head in 2030.
He will tell the government's Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster that the growing population and success in alleviating poverty in developing countries will trigger a surge in demand for food, water and energy over the next two decades, at a time when governments must also make major progress in combating climate change.
"We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame," Beddington told the Guardian.
"If we don't address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages," he added.
Food prices for major crops such as wheat and maize have recently settled after a sharp rise last year when production failed to keep up with demand. But according to Beddington, global food reserves are so low – at 14% of annual consumption – a major drought or flood could see prices rapidly escalate again. The majority of the food reserve is grain that is in transit between shipping ports, he said.
"Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.
"There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected," Beddington said. "You can't think about dealing with one without considering the others. We must deal with all of these together."
Before taking over from Sir David King as chief scientist last year, Beddington was professor of applied population biology at Imperial College London. He is an expert on the sustainable use of renewable resources.
In Britain, a global food shortage would drive up import costs and make food more expensive. Some parts of the country are predicted to become less able to grow crops as higher temperatures become the norm. Most climate models suggest the south-east of England will be especially vulnerable to water shortages, particularly in the summer.
The speech will add to pressure on governments following last week's climate change conference in Copenhagen, where scientists warned that the impact of global warming has been substantially underestimated by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latest research suggests that sea level rises, glacier melting and the risk of forest fires are at, or beyond, what was considered the worst case scenario in 2007.
Beddington said that shifts in the climate will see northern Europe and other high-latitude regions become key centres for food production. Other more traditional farming nations will have to develop more advanced pesticides or more hardy crops to boost yields, he said. In some countries, almost half of all crops are lost to pests and disease before they are harvested. Substantial amounts of food are lost after haversting, too, because of insufficient storage facilities.
Beddington said a major technological push is needed to develop renewable energy supplies, boost crop yields and better utilise existing water supplies.
Looming water shortages in China have prompted officials to build 59 new reservoirs to catch meltwater from mountain glaciers, which will be circulated into the water supply.
Beddington will use the speech to urge Europe to involve independent scientists more directly in its policy making, using recent appointments by President Barack Obama in the US as an example of how senior scientists have been brought into the political fold. Shortly after taking office, Obama announced what many see as a "dream team" of scientists, including two Nobel laureates, to advise on science, energy and the environment.