Expert Voices

Hunger Games: How to Avoid Real Food Riots (Op-Ed)

District 12
Residents of District 12 line up for the televised "reaping" that will select one boy and girl to represent the district in the Hunger Games. (Image credit: Lionsgate)

Dr. Mary "Kate" Fisher is a research scientist with CNA with expertise in agriculture, animal disease, homeland security, emergency preparedness and response. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The global food system is heavily networked and complex, making it vulnerable to a variety of risks. In 2007 and 2008, the world watched how a modern-era food crisis erupted from the complex interplay of several drivers: droughts in major grain- and cereal-producing regions, increased biofuel production consuming grain supplies, and a range of long-evolving structural policy failures. The disruptions affected developed and developing countries alike, creating political and economic instability and contributing to social unrest.

The International Food Policy Research Institute's "Reflections on the Global Food Crisis" report highlights how significant price spikes for rice (224 percent), wheat (108 percent) and corn (89 percent) — beginning as early as January 2004 — eroded global food security and prompted food aid requests from 36 nations. World Bank estimates indicate that the food crisis pushed 130 million to 155 million people into poverty in 2008 and contributed to civil unrest and "food riots" in more than 40 developing countries. 

For food, no nation stands alone

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted that those food riots threatened government and regional stability across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. In recounting lessons learned from the 2007 to 2008 food crisis, the U.S. Department of State highlighted the exacerbating influence of national government actions, including export restrictions, panic buying, stock building and insufficient transparency. 

The crisis highlighted the critical importance of understanding how the interdependencies and cascading effects of nations' decisions are likely to influence the global food system — and as revealed by the droughts — how the effects of climate change may exacerbate such challenges.

You don't know what you don't know, or what you can't imagine. Decision-makers often operate with imperfect information in an environment of uncertainty. Taking a "live-and-learn" approach in this setting can prove costly, and can set in motion cascading and long-term complications. 

Strategic gaming — where individuals likely to face crises get to act in response to a simulated scenario — allows leaders to "live strategy" and to flesh out the unknown and unimaginable within a risk-free setting. In the process, players identify what works and what doesn't — unconstrained by fear of expensive, or even dangerous, mistakes. Through gaming, players can apply tested approaches and lessons learned to the development and implementation of mitigation and response strategies. In other words, gaming helps reduce the incidence of planning in a vacuum. 

On Monday (Nov. 9), leaders representing nations and regions, businesses and international organizations will come together to "play" their way to a more food-secure future. "Food Chain Reaction – A Global Food Security Game" is a policy decision-making game that will lead players to explore issues arising from, and possible responses to, global food system disruptions. 

In recognition of the wide-ranging impacts of global food insecurity, Cargill, Mars, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Center for American Progress, with game design by CNA, developed the game to proactively identify potential solutions for addressing the drivers of, and responses to, global food disruptions. During four rounds of play spanning the decades 2020 to 2030, players will be confronted with food price and supply pressure at the intersection of population growth, urbanization, severe weather and social disturbances. In response, players will craft policies, make decisions and take actions that will dynamically influence the state of the world as the game advances. As the chain reaction of impacts tied to their choices becomes apparent, players will experience firsthand how their decisions could influence global food security. 

A core team of planners representing the sponsoring organizations identified players based on their current and future influence in government, business and international organizations. By design, the game brings together individuals with experience as high-ranking military and defense officials, cabinet-level government leaders, and business and international organization executives.

Armed with these new insights, players will return to their real-world positions ready to identify measures that can foster policy development and initiatives to mitigate future risks to global food security.

A game that's not a game

As a test bed for serious decisions and actions, games provide a range of benefits. Players represent broad and relevant interests, helping mitigate group-think issues that can occur within any government, business or organization. As players see the scenario advance in response to their decisions and actions, imagination and creativity take over, which can yield more effective solutions to complex problems with many possible solutions. And, because players drive the solutions against the backdrop of potential consequences, gaming promotes active ownership of problems, as well as the actions each player takes.

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Much like the real world, in the game setting players may still encounter asymmetric information and uncertainty if some players choose to collaborate or negotiate with other players without alerting the whole of the player pool. And yet, they are able to better understand how their decisions can influence the decisions and actions of other actors, as well as their impact on the crisis, itself because the findings of the game, usually in the form or a post-game reconstruction and analysis, highlight all of the play dynamics. Players can also gain insight into each other's actions and reactions, leading to innovative collaborations that ultimately may prove more effective than the actions of any single player. Learning in this way also helps shape players' decision-making outside of the game, by expanding the known range of possible outcomes and the drivers of those outcomes.

Through the game, players will identify the answers to a range of critical questions that represent how the world will respond to food insecurity. For example: How will leaders respond to pressure felt by their citizens? How will leaders balance internal needs with growing global instability? Will individual nations choose to grow more isolated, or will they cooperate to restore stability? [U.S. Military Prepares for Global Unrest Amid Climate Fears (Op-Ed)]

The answers to such questions can serve as the foundation for national and global policy and planning efforts as the world drives toward a mid-century facing an additional 2 billion people, larger cities, a changed climate, and new and continuing areas of social, economic and political instability.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.