Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 11/11/2015

Food Chain Reaction: A Global Food Security Game

On November 9-10 the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for American Progress conducted a crisis game examining global food security, Food Chain Reaction. The game design was undertaken by CNA, with funding and technical support from Cargill and Mars.

According to a report on the simulation by Bloomberg:

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.

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.

‘Lifelike, Realistic’

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.

New Normal

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.

You’ll also find a report on the Cargill corporate website:

Over two days, the players – divided into teams for Africa, Brazil, China, the EU, India, the U.S., international business and investors, and multilateral institutions – crafted their policy responses as delegations engaged in intensive negotiations.

Cooperation mostly won the day over the short term individual advantage. Teams pledged to build international information networks and early warning systems on hunger and crops together, invest jointly in smart agricultural technology and build up global food stocks as a buffer against climate shocks.

In the face of a steep price spike with looming global food shortages in 2022, the EU at one point suspended its environmental rules for agriculture and introduced a tax on meat. Both measures were quickly reversed in 2025, as harvests went back to normal and tensions eased in the hypothetical universe.

The most eye-catching result, however, was a deal between the U.S., the EU, India and China, standing in for the top 20 greenhouse gas emitters, to institute a global carbon tax and cap CO2 emissions in 2030.

“We’ve learned that a carbon tax is a possibility in years ahead,” acknowledged Stone. “But before we can consider moving ahead with a measure like that, we must study it and understand it much better. We have to avoid sudden market distortions and unforeseen consequences.”

Stone said he was impressed with the complexity of the game and the second and third order consequences of some of the decisions that were taken. “Take the meat tax Europe wanted to impose, and think through that. What meat are you going to tax – does that mean poultry and beef or aquaculture as well? Where do you levy the tax, where does the money go, what are the unintended consequences?”

‘Not just putting out fires’

The game was built over the course of months, with maximal realism in mind. The scenario was extrapolated from events that have actually occurred in the real world, such as the food crisis of 2008-2009 or the recent string of hottest years and months on record.

Cargill economist Tim Bodin, who helped design the game and sat on the judges’ panel that evaluated the team’s moves, said he was surprised by the degree of cooperation. “Most people started out with a short-term perspective, but transitioned to long-term measure pretty quickly – they started working to strengthen resiliency instead of just putting out fires.”

The realism of the exercise exceeded expectations, said former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who acted as a mentor to the players. “It’s much closer to the real world than you’d think. The people who play here are very committed and serious.”

Additional summaries can be found at the Food Chain Reaction and WWF websites.

Six Rules for Wargaming (and the challenges of experimental design)

WOTRMicah Zenko’s recent piece on the shortcomings of the (infamous) Millennium Challenge ‘02 wargame has spurred Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge to offer some additional thoughts on the subject at War on the Rocks. Specifically, they suggest “six rules of wargaming” that MC 02 violated:

1. Never try to mix a seminar wargame, an experiment, and a real world exercise. You will end up with too many variables to analyze any single one properly.

The differences between the three types of events are widely accepted throughout the Department of Defense, and are provided by the U.S. Naval War College:

Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming, defines a wargame as: “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”

The Naval War College considers an exercise to be an “activity designed to rehearse or practice, with actual forces or assigned staff, specific sets of procedures” and an experiment as a repeatable scientific method designed to test a hypothesis.

As Zenko discusses in his account of MC ‘02, when the red team sank the blue American fleet, it was reconstituted several times so that the real world exercises could continue. Each time the blue force was reconstituted, red team capabilities were taken away until the blue team could finally hold its own. The reason given was that the live exercises had to continue. The control (white) cell promised red that the results of the previous runs would be noted in analysis. That did not happen.

2. Never allow the people whose concept is being tested to run a game. In MC ‘02, the JFCOM concepts personnel oversaw the white, red, and blue cells. There was no firewall between the concept developers and the game directors.  If the red team did something to embarrass the concept, the results could be overruled.

3. Never allow concept writers to run the analysis. This is akin to allowing students to grade their own tests, and that is what happened in MC ‘02. No independent analysis was ever released by the command.

4. Never claim that a single wargame has validated anything. Wargames will identify issues, and a series of them may fully discredit a truly bad concept. The Germans were still wargaming what became known as blitzkrieg to refine it even after they executed the concept in Poland. The result was an overhaul of their war plans for what became the successful invasion of France. The Naval War College tested the concepts that eventually won the Second World War against Japan in innumerable wargames. The word “validation” should not be used until after the war is won.

After MC ’02 ended, the JFCOM deputy commander claimed that the three concepts being “tested” were “validated.” This is what led the red team leader, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, to go public on the flawed design and execution of the wargame.

5. A major wargame should be part of a program that lasts at least one year. No one-to-two-week game can adequately address all the objectives normally associated with concept development and experimentation. Elements of these objectives, as well as game design, methodology, and administration, should be put to the test in what are called “shaping events.” The earlier potential problem areas are identified and addressed, the better.

MC ‘02 did indeed have numerous shaping events to include a dry run (basically a rehearsal) that included a thinking and adaptive red team led by Van Riper. This event should have set off alarm bells as to what was in store for the blue team during the primetime event. Unfortunately, the results of the rehearsal were ignored and because these events were all seminar (conference-style) in nature, the ramifications of combining a wargame, an experiment, and an exercise were never addressed. Again, just as in the main effort, the concept developers should never run the analysis in shaping events.

6. Beware empowering defense contractors who work for concept developers and game designers, and “good idea fairies.” The former have a vested interest in pleasing their sponsors and the latter attempt to jump on the bandwagon as a program progresses and begins to garner increasing senior interest and press. For most of JFCOM’s brief history, contractors outnumbered active and reserve duty personnel as well as Department of Defense civilians. Contractors’ primary loyalties were to their government sponsor and to their company’s program manager, not to fulfilling MC ‘02’s stated objectives.

“Good idea fairies” come in many forms — active, civilian, and contractor — and have but one objective — using your efforts, grunt work, and money to highlight and “validate” their pet projects and/or wares.

That in turn led PAXsims associate editor Ellie Bartels to offer some thoughts of her own on Twitter:

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