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Weathering the food security storm

With experts warning climate change may prompt a radical rethink of UK land use, we explore the potential impact on food security.

Last updated: 11 Sep 2020 7 min read

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  • Increasingly adverse weather is calling into question the UK’s food self-sufficiency, which has been declining since the 1990s
  • Nearly 70% of fresh vegetables in the UK come from just two European countries – the Netherlands and Spain
  • In 2016, there was a food and drink trade deficit of £22.5bn with UK exports totalling £20.1bn compared with £42.6bn of imports
  • While some experts believe drier summers may mean arable production moves north, others suggest individuals’ dietary choices will have to change

Tim Lang has no doubts about the unholy trinity of storms that struck the UK in February. The professor of food policy at City, University of London sees Ciara, Dennis and Jorge as signs of things to come.

“Climate change will be noticed,” he says. “More floods, more droughts, more stresses, more extreme weather. This has a big impact on land and how we use it.”

Climate change poses fundamental questions for the UK’s food security. How safe are food sources and supply chains? Where will its impacts be most keenly felt? What can be done to mitigate?

At first sight, food security is relatively safe. Measured by value, the UK produces 52% of the food it consumes and imports the rest, mainly from the EU. Within the debate about where the balance should be struck between production and imports, the consensus is that self-sufficiency has been falling since the early 1990s.

The EU accounts for around of 70% food imports and receives 60% of the food exported from the UK. Fruit and vegetable imports exceed exports – £10.3bn imported against £1.1bn exported. Meat also showed a deficit, with £6.2bn imported and £1.6bn exported. With total UK food and drink exports valued at £20.1bn and imports at £42.6bn in 2016, the UK had an overall trade deficit of £22.5bn in the food, drink and animal feed sector.

Some of these foods, such as bananas, cannot be sourced in the UK. Others, such as meat, some fruits and vegetables, can. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) says sourcing food from a diverse range of stable regions, alongside domestic produce, enhances food security. But that diversity varies from one food to another.

Diversity of suppliers is vital

The coronavirus pandemic put the resilience and complexities of the food supply chain further into the spotlight, exposing vulnerabilities such as just-in-time logistics and the over-reliance on certain sources. According to the Global Food Security programme, which is backed by the UK’s main public sector funders of food research, UK food security relies on sourcing produce from a wide variety of nations, many of them within the EU. While this should allow for continuity of supply during failed harvests or bad weather, the UK heavily depends on a few countries for imports in certain food market sectors. 

“UK agricultural produce is geared towards red meat, dairy and poultry. It needs radical change. Tinkering around the edges won’t work” Gary McFarlane, director for Northern Ireland, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

Just two countries, Spain and the Netherlands, account for 69% of imported fresh vegetables, for example. Meanwhile, the UK depends on animal feed imports for livestock production, particularly in the poultry and pig sectors, with the bulk of soya beans coming from Argentina and Brazil.

A study on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK food system, published in the journal Nature Food, described the UK as “dangerously dependent” on Spain and the Netherlands, and the UK’s lack of diversity in sourcing products was a point of “acute vulnerability”.

“Securing greater diversity of international suppliers has been identified as a priority by the UK government, particularly in the context of Brexit,” said Dr Oliver Scanlan of the Oxford University Research Group’s sustainable security programme in a 2019 briefing paper. “UK food supply chains currently have limited direct exposure to the closure of global supply choke-points. This may change, should diversifying imports away from western European suppliers succeed.

“Regardless, the UK is as exposed as the rest of the world to food price volatility and potential long-term food price inflation.”

A changing climate and with it a reduction in the amount of arable land available is furrowing brows. “British agriculture has a little bit of a competitive advantage over other parts of the world because our predominantly Atlantic climate is why we are a green and pleasant land,” says Jonathan Scurlock, National Farmers’ Union chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change. “Generally, we are less hard hit by droughts and floods than some of our competitors elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, potato farmers who find their fields under water for a week will have their produce rotting in the ground. Agricultural produce, when it’s outdoors, is vulnerable, and the same goes for livestock.”

Land use changes ahead?

That vulnerability may redraw the UK’s agricultural map. Most of the UK’s arable farming is in the East and South East of England. Livestock pasture and other uses are more common further north and west. Unchecked climate change – the 5°C warming predicted by 2100 if the world’s carbon emissions continue to rise at current rates – could drive crop-growing North and West, according to research by the University of Exeter.

As well as being significantly warmer, the UK would have a predicted 140mm less rainfall each growing season – April to September – with more acute dry periods in the South East.

Of the 2019 research, Dr Paul Ritchie, a University of Exeter researcher, said: “Britain is relatively cool and damp, so a warmer and drier growing season is generally expected to increase arable production. However, by 2100, unmitigated climate change would see a decline in arable farming in the East and South East.

“Crops could still be grown with the aid of irrigation, but this would involve either storing large quantities of winter rainfall or transporting water from wetter parts of the country. The amount of water required would be vast, representing a major challenge for UK agriculture.”

Rethinking our diet

In short, climate will change the way we use land. This presents huge changes in the long term. Gary McFarlane, director for Northern Ireland at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, argues UK food security is fragile at best. The country needs to revert to seasonal eating and “do without strawberries at Christmas”, he says.

The best place to start would be a sustainable diet of red meat and poultry on one day a week each, with the other five dedicated to fruit and vegetables, he believes.

However, with around 60% of UK agricultural land not suitable for cropping, this poses a challenge to UK farmers. To reduce emissions and respond to the public’s environmental concerns, farmers will increasingly need to consider climate-friendly farming techniques such as rotational grazing, crop rotation, using organic fertilisers and legumes in grassland to sequester carbon, and using data-driven technology to reduce inputs and boost efficiencies.

The new Agriculture Bill also emphasises the need for changes to land use. As a key principle of the legislation, farmers and land managers will receive “public money for public goods” such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding. 

Difficult decisions

“Extreme weather in this country or in other parts of the world all impacts on food production sooner rather than later,” McFarlane says. “UK agricultural produce is geared towards red meat, dairy and poultry, much of it exported. When you see how reliant it is on fossil fuels, how our diet is in terms of our health and planetary health, we are heading for disaster.

“It needs radical change. Tinkering around the edges won’t work in the longer term.”

This means the UK needs to think about “what we want from the land in the first place” says Lang, adding: “Is it for the rich as a hedge against uncertainty? Is it for the common people? For housing or building on? For food production? For woods? For water? For carbon sequestration? For culture and amenity? For the view? For tourism?

“The shape of that mix is a public issue which so far we seemingly cannot decide. But climate change will force us to decide. Out of the UK’s 17.5 million hectares used for agriculture, only 168,000 hectares are used for horticulture. This is bonkers. It’s time to start rebuilding the connection between people, land, food and health. It’s a win-win.”

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