Climate Change and Food Insecurity
The saying goes, “everyone needs a farmer three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner”, but globally we are currently experiencing changes to climate resulting in disruption to food production and resulting food insecurity.
- Widespread drought across the Americas from Canada to Chile, Central Asia, and Africa, resulting in reduction in crop quality, complete crop failures, and livestock deaths.
- Excessive rainfall in areas such as New South Wales and parts of Europe where crops cannot be planted or are washed away.
- Lack of snow in mountainous regions where lower lying land relies on snowmelt to feed irrigation networks. (Nature.com, 2021)
- Wildfires in Greece, Italy, Tunisia, and Algeria (European Science Hub, 2023)
Add in the increasing demand for resources.
- Water for domestic consumption, crop irrigation, and industry. (Drought conditions in areas such as the Panara River Basin in Brazil which serves multiple hydroelectric dams has also led to regional power rationing) (Nature.com, 2021).
- Competition for land for agricultural production, housing, infrastructure as well as protecting habitat for the natural world.
Statistics also indicate that the ones who have contributed the least to climate change based on greenhouse gas emissions, are also the most vulnerable in society affected by these changes. E.g., several years of drought in Madagascar has resulted in 33% of the population (8.8 million people) being food insecure (IMF, 2023), surviving off a diet of insects and cactus leaves (BBC, 2021).
Impacts on food security for the UK
The food and drink sector is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry, bigger than the aerospace and automotive industries combined. UK agri-food and seafood sectors create over £120 billion of value for the economy every year and employ over 4 million people (Gov.UK, 2022).
Professor Michael Fakhri, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said trade was the biggest vulnerability in the global food system, as in the last thirty years policies had been “geared towards prioritising food trade by any means possible” (House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2023).
Being part of a global food system can provide a diversity of supply sources and access to new products that cannot be produced domestically, contributing to domestic food security. However, exposure to international markets, in combination with global supply chain pressures and shocks, also creates price and supply impacts (Gov.UK, 2022). With approximately 48% of food consumed now being imported, compared to 78% in the mid-70’s, the UK as a nation is not food secure, this also hides a wide range of self-sufficiency levels sector by sector, e.g., the UK is only 17% self-sufficient in fresh fruit.
One of the changes that have been seen over that time frame is changing dietary habits, year-round supply of fresh fruit and salad, where we are not only importing food, but also water contained within that food from countries that can least afford it. Increasing consumption of rice with a large proportion imported from India and Pakistan and Vietnam (Volza.com, 2023). (The recent ban of rice exports from India due to extreme weather conditions and reported hoarding in other countries, there will be inevitable disruption of supply and price of this now staple foodstuff).
Navigating Food Shortages and Challenges in the UK’s Agri-Food Sector
We have also experienced other food shortages in recent months, with availability and production of items such as eggs, cucumbers and tomatoes all affected by a perfect storm of record energy inflation, post-pandemic supply chain disruption, the war in Ukraine and the unpredictable effects of climate change (NatWest Report, 2023), and NFU findings suggest that further challenges are imminent with 40% of beef farmers and 36% of sheep farmers planning to reduce numbers in response to input costs.
The sole remaining Nitrogen fertiliser plant in the UK adds further risk to food security as more fertiliser products need to be imported. Availability of seasonal labour has caused issues with harvesting in the horticulture and meat processing sectors.
The UK has the third highest welfare standards globally according to the World Animal Protection – Animal Protection Index and there is a clear cost attached to this legislation with lower standards enforced in other countries, some of which export their products to the UK. This approach by retailers may make prices cheaper for consumers, but equally prevents UK farmers from being competitive in the marketplace in comparison, unless they are able to market their produce locally at higher prices than food processors or retailers are willing to pay.
The UK is also a relatively small but densely populated country, with competition for resources of land, water, and labour. Economic growth requires land for development, whether that be housing or industrial, but this should not be growth at any cost. Productive farmland should not be easily given up making way for warehousing and infrastructure; the environment, biodiversity, and food security surely must have priority if the sector is to satisfy government aims of reducing emissions, halting species decline, increasing woodland creation rates, restoring peatland and overall soil health. During the Covid19 pandemic, public access to the countryside was proven to be beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.
Embracing Innovation and Collaboration for Sustainable Agri-Food Systems
Innovation will be a key component to sustainably boost production and profitability across the supply chain. The government has committed to spend over £270 million through the Farming Innovation Programme and are supporting £120 million investment in research across the food system in partnership with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in addition to other funding packages (Gov.UK, 2022). Technological advancements are helping growers move towards achieving some of the government goals of Net Zero, precision breeding for drought tolerance, and reduction in pesticide use, circular use of waste for energy production, feed additives to reduce methane emissions.
Agri-EPI Centre and it’s fellow sister centres CIEL and CHAP are actively working with our members and wider stakeholders to identify real problems faced by growers, and potential solutions that could be developed to those problems of sustainable food production at the same time as improving soils, enhancing environments for wildlife etc. Internal capability and resources such as the farm network, our technical asset portfolio of drones, sensors, robotics, phenotyping facility, cold storage, GHG monitoring are available for research and development in funded projects and commercial use. To find out if we can support your innovative idea, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Duncan Ross, Business Development Manager Crops and Horticulture.
With a background in horticultural production and agricultural engineering, Duncan has an excellent network and knowledge of current issues and developments across AgriTech and the fresh produce sector.