On 8 September 2022, the House of Lords is due to consider the following motion:

Baroness Boycott (Crossbench) to move that this House takes note of the impact of climate change and bio-diversity loss on food security.

1. What is food security?

Food security is a measure of people’s access to safe and nutritional food. It depends on several factors, including the availability and affordability of food. The UN Committee on World Food Security defines the concept as follows:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Further information on food security is provided in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Food security: What is it and how is it measured?’ (7 February 2020).

2. Assessing UK food security

In its 2021 ‘UK food security report’, the government described food security as a “complex and multi-faceted issue”. The report identified the following five principal factors as affecting UK food security:

  • Global food availability: the supply and demand of food at a global level.
  • UK food supply sources: the balance of food imports to the UK from abroad and UK domestic food production.
  • Food supply chain resilience: the infrastructure underlying the supply chain by which food is supplied to UK consumers.
  • Food security at household level: the extent to which households can consistently afford and have access to sufficient healthy and nutritious food.
  • Food safety and consumer confidence: the extent to which consumers have confidence in the safety and authenticity of the food they eat.

The government’s assessment was that the UK benefited from a balance of domestic food production and food imports from outside the UK. It reported that the UK produced about 60% of its domestic food consumption, based on economic value, some of which is exported. The government said this balance ensured the security of the UK’s food supply. The government reported that the UK’s food supply chain was resilient to potential shocks. It said that a majority of households (92%) considered themselves to be food secure in the 2019/20 financial year. It also reported the majority of consumers had confidence in the food they buy and eat.

At the same time, the report identified several risks to the UK’s long-term food security. It said climate change, climate variability and biodiversity loss all threatened the long-term security of global food production. It concluded climate change and biodiversity loss were among the biggest medium to long term risks to UK domestic food production, alongside other factors, including soil degradation and water quality. For example, the report noted UK wheat yields dropped by 40% in 2020 as a result of heavy rainfall and droughts. The government also said the overexploitation of natural capital resources, such as fish stocks and water, were a threat to global food security.

2.1 Criticism of UK food system

In 2020, the House of Lords Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment published a report entitled ‘Hungry for change: Fixing the failures in food’. In it, the committee considered the security of the UK food system in the round, including the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food in the UK. It found that people with limited resources were unable to access affordable, nutritional food. It also said food industries, manufacturers, retailers and the food services sector were perpetuating demand for less healthy, highly processed products. The committee argued this was resulting in more people suffering from diet-related obesity and non-communicable diseases. It also highlighted this was inhibiting efforts to support environmentally sustainable farming practices in the UK. The committee concluded the UK’s food system was failing and that a significant number of people in the UK were unable to access the food they need. Further information on the committee report and the government’s response is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Hungry for change: Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee report’ (4 June 2021).

Baroness Boycott, the member who tabled the debate taking place in the House of Lords on 8 September 2022, is a trustee of the Food Foundation, a think tank on the food system in the UK. In February 2022, the Food Foundation reported that 8.8% of UK households had experienced food insecurity in the previous month. The Food Foundation said this had increased from 7.3% in July 2021.

One measure of food security is the number of people using food banks in the UK. The Trussell Trust has reported that over 2.1 million food parcels were distributed to people by food banks in 2021–22. This was lower than the total number distributed in 2020–21 during the pandemic (2.5 million). However, the Trussell Trust noted that the 2021–22 figure was 14% higher than in 2019–20. The Trussell Trust has also said 17% of people who receive Universal Credit have visited a food bank at least once since the start of December 2021. This is based on an online poll conducted on behalf of the Trussell Trust by YouGov.

The Food Foundation has said food insecurity is going to be made worse in 2022 by rising food prices in the UK. In June 2022, the British Retail Consortium warned that UK households had been hit by the highest rate of inflation since the 1980s. The consumer prices index (CPI) rose by 10.1% in the 12 months to July 2022. Food price inflation was the largest driver of this increase to inflation overall. The inflation rate for food and non-alcoholic beverages rose to 12.7% in the 12 months to July 2022. Inflation is forecast to rise further before the end of the year. In August 2022, the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee said CPI inflation could rise to just over 13% in the fourth quarter of 2022.

3. Impact of climate change on food security

In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the global average temperature would rise above 1.5°C over the next two decades compared to pre-industrial levels. The IPCC also said this global warming was likely to increase beyond 2°C before the end of the century unless there was a deep and sustained reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

In 2022, the IPCC published a report on the potential impacts of these changes to the global average temperature. It said climate change was already leading to more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts and floods. It argued some natural and human systems had already been pushed beyond their ability to adapt to these changes, causing irreversible damage to food security. The IPCC said increases to global warming of between 1.5°C and 2°C would put further pressure on food production and access. It also said the risk to food security would increase in areas worst affected and least able to adapt.

The IPCC said, if global average temperatures rose beyond 2°C, this would lead to a more severe risk to food security:

At 2°C or higher global warming level in the mid-term, food security risks due to climate change will be more severe, leading to malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies, concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America and Small Islands. Global warming will progressively weaken soil health and ecosystem services such as pollination, increase pressure from pests and diseases, and reduce marine animal biomass, undermining food productivity in many regions on land and in the ocean.

The IPCC said global warming of 3°C or higher would lead to a substantial expansion of those areas affected by climate related hazards. It said this would result in wider and more severe food insecurity.

In 2019, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said climate change would make it harder for the government to ensure the resilience of the UK’s food supply. The CCC identified several risks to food insecurity caused by climate change. It said more frequent weather extremes would cause damage to crops, livestock and fisheries both in the UK and around the world. It also noted these weather extremes could damage farming infrastructure, adversely affecting productivity. While the CCC noted increased temperatures might improve yields in the short term for countries in the northern hemisphere, it threatened yields in other parts of the world. The CCC argued climate change was likely to result in greater volatility in domestic food prices, unless the UK was able to adapt to these changes. It said climate change could lead to a 20% (mean) rise in food prices globally by 2050.

4. Impact of biodiversity loss on food security

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as the diversity and variability among living organisms within the terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems they are part of. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there has been an average 68% fall in the monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish since 1970. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has estimated the rate of extinction globally is at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years. IPBES has forecast that an average of a quarter of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened with extinction. It said this meant around I million species faced extinction.

IPBES has said this loss in biodiversity posed a serious threat to food security. For example, it said 10% of domesticated breeds of mammals and 3.5% of domesticated breeds of birds had already been recorded as extinct. It also said the wild relatives of these domesticated breeds were under threat of extinction, resulting in a narrowing of the gene pool. IPBES has argued this biodiversity loss would leave agricultural systems more vulnerable to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change. It also said there had been a decline in the biodiversity of pollinators, leading to an increased risk of crop failure and damage to the horticultural industry.

In his independent review of the economics of biodiversity, commissioned by the UK government, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta identified biodiversity loss as a risk to the world economy in general and to food security specifically. For example, he argued biodiversity loss was damaging the health of soil needed to grow food. He described the ways in which various organisms contributed towards the health of soil:

Archaea, bacteria and fungi act as chemical engineers, decomposing plant residues and soil organic matter, contributing to nutrient transitions and recovery of polluted soils. Other organisms act as biological regulators, controlling plant pathogens and contributing to food security. Larger organisms, such as earthworms, termites and small mammals act as ecosystem engineers, controlling the structure of the soil matrix. Without these diverse species playing different roles, the soils would fail to support the global food system.

In his review, Professor Dasgupta described the overall cause of biodiversity loss as being the expansion of human demand for goods and services beyond nature’s ability to supply them. He argued countries including the UK had undervalued the importance of what he described as “natural capital”, the value that is placed on nature and the environment. For example, he said intensive farming techniques and the use of pesticides were damaging the ecosystems necessary to ensure the long-term security of food production. Further information on the Dasgupta review and the government’s response is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Biodiversity’ (19 April 2021).

The IPCC has said biodiversity and climate change are interrelated. In 2022, the IPCC published a report identifying climate change as one of the causes of global biodiversity loss. It said climate change had altered marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems around the world. It said this was leading to more species becoming extinct as they fail to adapt. The IPCC identified other threats to biodiversity caused by climate change, an increase in the number of wildfires around the world and coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels.

5. Government policy

In 2019, the government announced a plan to establish a new national food strategy. The government said one of the aims of this strategy was to improve the UK’s food security. It also announced Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon, was to lead an independent review of UK food supply and food security. The government said this review would inform its national food strategy.

5.1 Dimbleby review

The first part of Henry Dimbleby’s review, entitled the ‘National food strategy’, was published in June 2020. It identified both climate change and biodiversity loss as threats to UK food security. Mr Dimbleby made two recommendations in his first report intended to mitigate these environmental threats. He recommended the government should only cut tariffs on goods as part of new trade deals if these goods met UK standards for environmental and climate protections, as well as animal welfare (recommendation 5). He also recommended there should be a new statutory requirement that the government commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements (recommendation 6). He said this review should include an assessment of the impact of any new agreement on the environment and climate change.

The second part of the Dimbleby review, published in 2021, made the following further recommendations intended to address the threats posed to food security by climate change and biodiversity loss. The review said the government should:

  • Guarantee the budget for agricultural payments which support natural carbon removal and the development of semi-natural habitats, until at least 2029 (recommendation 8).
  • Create a new rural land use framework, providing an assessment of the best way any given area of land should be used. This should include an assessment of whether an area should be used for: semi-natural land; low-yield farmland; high-yield farmland; or economic development and housing (recommendation 9).
  • Create a national food system data programme to collect and share data on the quality of land available for food production. The programme would also collect data on food production, distribution and retail and the environmental and health impacts of food (recommendation 12).
  • Introduce legislation, referred to in the report as the Good Food Bill. The bill would include a requirement to publish a five-year action plan for UK food, including how the government intended to improve the food system’s contribution towards protecting the environment (recommendation 14).

5.2 UK food strategy

The government did not publish a response to the Dimbleby review following the publication of its second report. However, the government indicated that it would outline its response to the review in its own food strategy once that had been published.

In January 2022, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published an assessment of the risks arising from climate change. The report said the risk to supply of food, goods and vital services caused by climate change was one of eight priority risk areas. In this report the government said proposals to increase the security of the UK’s food supply in order to mitigate this risk would be included in its new food strategy, once it was published.

The government’s food strategy was published in June 2022. The government said the aims of the strategy included the delivery of a “sustainable, nature positive [and] affordable food system”. In order to achieve this, the government said it would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change and the environmental impacts of the food system. The government restated its commitment to halt species decline in England by 2030, increase woodland creation, restore peatlands and improve soil health. It also said it would work internationally to create a “more resilient, environmentally friendly and healthier global food system”.

The strategy also included the following commitments:

  • To launch a food data transparency partnership, intended to provide consumers with greater information about their food. This would include information on whether or not food had been produced sustainably.
  • Consult on implementing a mandatory public reporting requirement on sustainability in the food industry.
  • To publish a report to monitor progress towards achieving the goals of the strategy. However, the strategy did not include the Dimbleby review proposal for a statutory reporting mechanism.
  • Combat so-called “green washing” by developing a mandatory methodology for eco labels, indicating whether food has been farmed in an environmentally sustainable way.
  • Use measures in the Environment Act 2021 requiring companies to give due diligence to whether illegal deforestation is present in their supply chains.

The food strategy said the government intended to secure the UK’s food supply through new trade agreements, saying it would protect the UK’s food security through “a combination of strong and consistent domestic production of food as well as a diversity of supply sources through trade”. It also said the government would seek to protect domestic standards as part of these future trade deals, including environmental protection.

Responding to the food strategy, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Jim McMahon, said the government’s plans did not adequately address the existing risks to the UK’s food security. He accused the government of making “a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues facing our country”.

Speaking following the publication of the review, Henry Dimbleby said the government had adopted roughly half of the proposals set out in his review. He argued the government needed to take “much bolder” action. He also said the government should have followed his recommendation to pass new legislation to protect food security and the environment.

6. Recent pressures on global food security

In the last 12 months, there have been a series of crises affecting global food security. Climate change and biodiversity loss have both been identified as key causes of recent these crises. Other related factors have also been identified, including conflicts around the world and the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

6.1 Countries facing acute food insecurity

In June 2022, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) identified the following countries as facing acute food insecurity: Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. The FAO also reported 750,000 people already faced starvation and death in these countries (excluding Nigeria). The FAO identified weather extremes and increased climate variability as one of the causes behind food insecurity in these countries. For example, it cited a recurrence of La Niña conditions since late 2020, with cooling ocean temperatures in the Pacific leading to increased rains and flooding. The FAO argued this was responsible for crop and livestock losses around the world, particularly in East Africa, Central Asia and the Caribbean.

Dr Arif Husain, the chief economist for the World Food Programme (WFP), has argued climate change was one of four interconnected factors behind the current food crisis. The other factors were: ongoing conflicts, such as the conflict in Ethiopia; the continuing economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising cost of food. Dr Husain said the WFP provided assistance to 128 million people in 2021, more than in any other year in the organisation’s 60-year history. He said that the WFP planned to provide support to upwards of 140 million people in 2022.

In August 2022, the Pakistani government declared a state of emergency following record-breaking monsoon flooding. The flooding is reported to have affected 33 million people, resulting in the loss of homes and farmland. The monsoons are also reported to have devastated large amounts of crops across the country. Julien Harneis, the UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan, has described the emergency as a “climate-change driven catastrophe”. Mr Harneis has said the humanitarian situation is expected to worsen as a result and that diseases and malnutrition are expected to rise.

6.2 Wider context: Global food price inflation

The food insecurity crisis is taking place in the context of rising international food prices. The FAO’s food price index is a measure of monthly changes in the international prices of cereals, vegetable oils, dairy products, meat, and sugar. In 2021, the average index score was 125.7, the highest since 2011. In July 2022, the index had been in decline for four consecutive months. However, it remained 16.4 points higher than it had been at the same point the previous year.

The rising cost of wheat prices caused by the Russian blockade of Ukraine has been identified as a cause of food price inflation. Further information on the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food prices is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Impact of Ukrainian port blockade on food supply to developing countries’ (14 July 2022). Further information on the rising cost of agricultural fertiliser and feed more generally is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Rising cost of agricultural fertiliser and feed: Causes, impacts and government policy’ (22 June 2022).

7. Impact of summer 2022 temperatures on UK farming

In August 2022, the Met Office reported updated projections for changes to the UK climate. It said there was an increased chance of warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers in the UK during the rest of the century. It also said the UK faced an increase in both the frequency and intensity of weather extremes.

In the summer of 2022, the UK experienced record high temperatures. In July 2022, the Met Office recorded temperatures of above 40°C for the first time, beating the previous record of 38.7°C. In August 2022, the Environment Agency declared droughts in parts of the South West, Southern and Central England and the East of England. As a result of the dry conditions, farmers have said they expect food yields to be low this year.

In July 2022, the Rural Payments Agency issued guidance to farmers and land managers whose land had been affected by extreme heat. This allowed for a temporary relaxation of requirements on land use, allowing farmers to cut or graze areas of land otherwise set aside as part of their existing agri-environment scheme agreements.

In August 2022, there was heavy rainfall and flooding in some areas of England. The Environment Agency said the deluge of rainwater could not drain away quickly because the ground had been hardened by earlier dry conditions. The heavy rains also resulted in storm sewage overflows, with untreated sewage being released into UK rivers and around the UK coast. Further information on storm sewage overflows is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Sewage pollution in England’s waters’ (30 June 2022).

8. Conservative leadership campaign

During the 2022 campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party, both of the final candidates indicated they would revisit existing government policies in order to protect UK food security by increasing domestic production. Writing in the Telegraph, Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer, said, if he became prime minister, the UK would not “lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms”. He also said he was opposed to “re-wilding”, a term used to describe the restoration of natural processes and reduction of human land management. Further information on rewilding is provided in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology briefing ‘Rewilding and ecosystem services’ (29 September 2016).

The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said she would support farming by reducing regulation. She argued the government should prioritise land being available for agriculture, saying she was opposed to “fields with paraphernalia like solar farms”. The winner of the 2022 leadership contest is scheduled to be announced on 5 September 2022.

In August 2022, Sir Robert Goodwill, the chairman of the House of Commons Environment Committee and Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, also said the government needed to reconsider its land-use policies. He said he would support proposals intended to prevent agricultural land being used for solar farms.

Both the Conservative leadership candidates have been criticised by the solar energy trade association, Solar Energy UK. Chris Hewett, the chief executive of Solar Energy UK, said investment in solar energy was necessary to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions and improve the UK’s energy security.

9. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee food security inquiry

In July 2022, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into UK food security. This will consider the issues facing food producers in the UK and rising food prices. The inquiry is accepting evidence until 30 September 2022 and has yet to call any witnesses.

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Cover image by Heiko Janowski on Unsplash.