UK reliance on fresh produce from climate-vulnerable areas exposed

Brits need to eat more fruit and veg. That much we knew. But will there be enough to go around and is it affordable?

A new study published in Nature Food suggests maybe not. “The increased reliance on fruit and vegetable imports from climate-vulnerable countries will, if no adequate climate change adaptation measures are taken in the production countries, lead to fruit and vegetable supply problems in the UK,” said lead author Pauline Scheelbeek from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Scheelbeek’s research in the period 1987 to 2013 showed the diversity of fruit and veg supplied to the UK has increased: tropical fruits are in demand while consumption of cabbages and carrots has fallen away.

Supply of veg per capita increased from 268g to 338g while that for fruit jumped from 150g to 225g. The authors noted that the data they used for supply does not equate to consumption or individual dietary intake. Food waste at household level was not accounted for so the figures are likely overestimates. Still, the direction of travel is encouraging.

Less so however is the UK’s increasing reliance on fruit and vegetables from climate-vulnerable countries. With people preferring berries over leafy vegetables and legumes, supply from UK producers has fallen from 42% to 22%; imports from “climate-vulnerable production areas” increased from 20% to 32%. The figures covered both fresh produce and processed foods containing fruit and veg.

Defra figures show the domestic contribution to fresh produce supply fell from 55% in 1988 to 33% in 2013. “The government cannot ignore these trends or it will be failing in its primary duty to protect its people from future shocks,” said Professor Alan Dangour, director of the Centre on Climate Change & Planetary Health at LSHTM.

The researchers said availability, price and consumption of fruit and veg could all be negatively affected, leaving older people and those in low-income households particularly exposed.

Hitting the five-a-day could become even trickier. Just 30% of adults and 18% of children eat the recommended portions of fruit and/or vegetables per day in England.The findings are therefore important in the context of several government-led programmes, such as the UK’s National Food Strategy, the Obesity Strategy and ongoing Brexit trade negotiations.

Changes to UK consumption patterns for fruit and veg should also be set in the context of the country’s environmental impact. Fruit and veg tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than livestock products but there are other considerations. For example, approximately 76% of the freshwater consumed in the supply of fruit and veg to the UK is drawn elsewhere, including from countries with a high risk of water scarcity such as Spain, Egypt, South Africa, Chile, Morocco, Israel and Peru.

The researchers suggest a number of different strategies – from the mitigation of and adaption to climate change in the vulnerable areas to the expansion of horticulture in the UK.

Research published in 2018 warned that global production of vegetables and legumes could be significantly reduced as temperatures rise and water availability falls.

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