Published On: July 5, 2021

This article by Kate Cooper, Executive Director of the Birmingham Food Council and Visiting Professional Fellow at the CRISIS Centre at Aston University, asks if potential food shortages are a political, economic and ethical problem, why this is so, and what we could do about it?

The UK was unprepared for the impact of Covid-19 on our food-supply system. Instead of heeding the warning, the public has yet to see any planning for food-supply shortages and scarcities, let alone any response to the steady degradation of our system, as summarised here. No one in power, either nationally or locally, appears to take our food security seriously.

Perhaps this inertia is because the scale and complexity of today’s supply system render much of it opaque, even to those working inside the sector. Perhaps it is because the last time famine stalked these isles was in the 1840s when a million or more starved to death and the many other millions fled the UK shores (including JFK’s and Joe Biden’s forebears).

Perhaps it is because today’s professional and governing classes are largely insulated from the growing plight of young adults, low wages and increasing socio-economic inequalities in life expectancies and healthy life expectancies. In order to take action, those in power, as any person, need to feel what is going on emotionally.

Forward thinking

Both emotion and reason are needed to prepare for a crisis. Thinking – both ‘fast’ and then a ‘slow’ considered, dispassionate gathering of unbiased information – is needed. ‘Fast’ intuitive thinking, after all, galvanises action. ‘Slow’ thinking is needed when actual decisions are made. History tells us that if leaders are driven only by intuition and evidence ignored, misjudgements and miscalculations about future food supplies to a population can lead to death and disease, even large-scale famine.

For a few frantic weeks in March and April last year when about half the UK food supplies was indeed locked away, the supply system reconfigured itself in order for most, but not all, of the population to have enough food to eat. (The reconfiguration included the big supermarkets accessing supply chains for smaller outlets, responses to labour shortages, distribution issues, etc; see here.) Yet, the agility of such systems masks two inconvenient truths we routinely discount.

Inconvenient truths

The first inconvenient truth: The modern-day famine is rarely a dearth of calories: it’s one of nutrients. The global competition for safe, nutritious food, already intense, can only increase. This will lead inexorably to higher prices with sudden, possibly irreversible price hikes.

Shortages and scarcities, already seen here from time to time, will soon become frequent, predictably exacerbated by the effects of the recent changes in our trading relationship with the EU27. Millions of us already don’t have the economic means to buy the nutritious foods we need for an active, healthy life. Arguably, a nutrient famine has already arrived here – a silent, pernicious threat to each of us, with life-long impacts on our children.

The second inconvenient truth is climate change. With it comes agri-food resource depletion, population pressures and, inevitably during times of existential risk, geopolitical changes. As the Committee on Climate Change reported recently: ‘Alarmingly, [this] new evidence shows that the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened.’

Did you know: That crops don’t grow above 30oC, a temperature often exceeded in the 2018 heatwave across the northern hemisphere? That there was a 40% drop in our 2020 domestic wheat harvest owing to floods followed by drought earlier last year? That if an orchard is damaged by floods, it can take a decade or more, if ever, to re-establish production? That East Anglia has been losing 1-3cm of top soil per year since the 1850s? That very little fresh produce is grown in the UK during the ‘hungry months’? That the UK imports some 40% of the food we eat, more when domestic harvests fail? That four-fifths of the world’s population depend on food imports? That the world needs to produce enough food for 25% more people by 2050 on two-thirds of the land used now – and there is no more land left to cultivate? That the UN estimates that 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity by 2025, less than four years away, with two-thirds of the global population living in water-stressed regions? And London and the southeast has been water-stressed for years, with East Anglia entering its third decade of being categorised as semi-arid?

Change is due

The lack of preparedness in our food supply system is, at first, a failure of imagination. Foremost, it is a political, economic and ethical failure. The government could make the ethical choice to meet its responsibilities under the 1996 Rome Declaration on World Food Security to which the UK is a signatory. Politicians could ask Parliament to set up a Committee on Food Security, HM Treasury to set a Food Resilience Levy similar in remit and purpose to the Climate Change Levy, and an Excise Duty on companies that make ‘food’ and beverage products carrying standard-rate VAT. They could make the ethical choice to use the monies raised to expand the capacity and capability for fresh produce production and preservation, invest in management, storage and logistics technologies, and set up a distributed buffer stock system of nutrient-dense foods for use in crisis situations.

They could. We could also encourage them while holding them to account when they don’t do enough to prepare the population and the food supply system for the future. Alternatively, we can all bury our heads in the sand. Millions more will then suffer even more: maybe you and yours among them.

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