The Environmental Audit Committee has found that around a fifth of the UK’s supply of fresh food is at risk from climate change. It says that, ‘a high dependency on imported fresh food, coupled with failure to act on climate breakdown, is risking national food security.’
The EAC is right, but it is only telling half the story. We must address not only the complexity of our external food supply chains; we must urgently transform our agricultural land management so that our farms can improve production while mitigating climate change and restoring nature – and we must change the national diet so that meals become local, fresh, and seasonal.
Access to food and water are the glue that holds society together. As Alfred Henry Lewis observed in 1906, ‘there are only nine meals between (hu)mankind and anarchy.’ The availability or scarcity of staple ingredients can mean the difference between a civilised society and a civil conflict.
If global warming from greenhouse gas emissions is not reduced urgently and consistently, we can anticipate severe disruption of the global food supply chain by or before 2040. This will impact on every country in the world, including the UK.
Food scarcity exacerbates social tensions such as inequality and poverty and acts as a threat multiplier. Accelerating economic globalisation, resurgent nationalism, pressures on the public purse, and political decisions, have led to an increase in social unease, the loss of community cohesion, and rising inequality.
Food shortages, increased poverty, and climate-related migration would emphasise these inequalities. They would act alongside other social undercurrents and increase the threat of civil unrest. At the more extreme end, this could lead to individuals or communities defending food supplies from other citizens.
In May 2019 Australian think tank, Breakthrough, published a paper outlining the ‘Existential climate-related security risk’. This highlighted that all nations are vulnerable to civil unrest resulting from food scarcity.
The decisions we make about food in the UK can already escalate or reduce the levels of potential conflict in vulnerable societies. The Fairtrade Foundation, and others, have recognised this threat and taken positive action to reduce it.
In richer, more developed nations we tend to believe that our societies are more robust, but the complexity of our food supply chains and the concentration of corporate power could make us more vulnerable to severe climate disruption.
Around 40% of the UK’s food is imported, much of it by sea and air. Transport routes are vulnerable to extreme weather and to civil unrest. In addition, a significant proportion of the food grown for home consumption perpetuates unsustainable and inefficient agricultural land use.
If we are to ensure that our food supply is resilient enough to withstand major disruption in global food supply chains, then we must start planning now.
Our ability to feed ourselves, now and into the future, depends on our capacity to produce, harvest and distribute a wide variety of nutritious foods.
Action must be taken to ensure that all land is in the best condition it can be, and that future farming systems are regenerative. Where farming can best be characterised as a mining activity – extracting minerals from the ground more quickly than they can be replenished – we must urgently shift to systems that sequester carbon, restore soil health and biodiversity, and cycle minerals and water efficiently. We must also tackle food waste and obesity.
A shift to regenerative agriculture will help nations become more resilient to global risks and fluctuations; it will also support rural economies. Governments should aim to reduce food imports, not by the imposition of protectionist tariffs, but by supporting and promoting high quality and sustainable national production.
UK harvests and the supply of staple ingredients are at risk. Supply disruption, with its impact on food prices and availability will exacerbate social tensions such as inequality and poverty. We must urgently mitigate our own vulnerability to climate-related conflict.
Sustainable, climate-efficient, regenerative agriculture should be considered a national pre-requisite to ensure that this and future generations can eat healthy, nutritious meals.
This guest blog is written by ffinlo Costain, Chief Executive, Farmwel