The government’s optimistic view of the impact global warming could have on food security is rosé-tinted but unsurprising now it is happily cosying up to powerful climate change deniers.
The World Meteorological Organisation has confirmed that last year was the hottest on record globally – temperatures were 1.1°C higher than pre-industrial levels and 0.07°C up on 2015. It was an “extreme year”, the WMO said, with long-term indicators of anthropological climate change also reaching “new heights” thanks to record levels of carbon dioxide and methane. The data is unlikely to worry Donald Trump, but DEFRA also seems to be playing things cool.
In January, the department published its climate change risk assessment report 2017. It’s basically a response to the advice provided by the adaptation subcommittee arm of the Climate Change Committee. “Our changing climate is one of the most serious environmental challenges that we face as a nation and that is why we are taking action, from improving flood defences across the country to securing our critical food and water supplies,” said the DEFRA minister Lord Gardiner.
And yet he chose to ignore the expert group’s advice in relation to the food security risks from climate change. Food price spikes should be a major concern, and urgent policy intervention is needed to mitigate the risks. “At present there is no co-ordinated national approach to ensure the resilience of the UK food system,” the committee warned. But the government is apparently taking a more “optimistic view” given that the UK supply chain “consistently performs well” in the face of regular climatic tests. Farmers may beg to differ.
What this optimistic view looks like isn’t clear. Perhaps it is one in which southern England is awash with vineyards and producing wine (from genetically modified grapes) that’s exported to all four corners of the globe. That’s a rosé-tinted view – “We can’t afford to play Russian roulette with climate change,” said Dan Crossley at the Food Ethics Council – but the government’s indifference is hardly surprising.
There’s the small matter of the divorce from the EU. Weetabix is the latest in a growing line of food businesses to have warned of looming price rises following Brexit. Some have already negotiated increases. Consider that 27% of the food consumed in the UK comes from the bloc and that Brexit will place the UK outside the single market and the government will continue to play down food security risks and play up new trade friendships further afield.
Just 4% of UK food comes from North America, for example. A new deal with Trump is far from a foregone conclusion and a hasty agreement could open the floodgates to cheap goods and undermine the UK’s producers (not to mention the UK’s efforts to ensure a global effort to tackle climate change). Takeaways would find the temptation hard to ignore. Catering firms chasing their tails to make wafer-thin margins work could also spy an opportunity in cheaper beef and chicken, say. Green procurement standards (complete with “buy British” targets) are in place for the public-sector providers, but are rarely checked and have never been enforced.
Is there hope in the fact that provenance and animal welfare remain high priorities for consumers? In a survey by Nielsen last year, for instance, 59% of Brits said place of origin was at least as important to them as factors like price, range and quality. “In an increasingly borderless world, the ‘made in’ moniker still matters,” said Nielsen UK’s innovation leader, Ben Schubert.
Six months on and consumers are being warned to brace themselves for more price rises on food, fuel and other essentials this year. Farmers are preparing to face a slash in subsidies and stiffer competition than ever from overseas. Meanwhile, the UN’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes this month concluded that he found “no indication of a political commitment to retaining current standards for health and environmental protection”. Is this the platform for a food system that sounds secure and sustainable? With Trump and his team of climate change deniers sniffing around at Number 10 you can bet your bottom dollar it’s not.