Food security means everyone having enough safe and nutritious food to grow up and live a healthy life, in ways the planet’s ecosystem resources can sustain. Looking into the near future, there are immense challenges to achieving that globally, in both how we consume and produce food, dominated by climate change.

What are these challenges, how do they affect local communities in the UK, and what can we do about them? Nearly half of the food eaten in the UK last year was produced overseas, a quarter of it coming from the EU, so we have to look at the big picture.

Let’s start with food consumption.  Given how basic it is to our health and happiness, you might think that as a species we would make a better fist of feeding ourselves.  On the one hand, reports the UK government agency Global Food Security (GFS), more than three quarters of a billion people go hungry in the world every day, and nearly three times that number lack vital minerals and vitamins, affecting their health and life expectancy.  While on the other, says GFS, “globally there are now more people who are overweight or obese than underweight, with the two combined accounting for more than half of the world population: a new normal.”

Yet the amount of food we waste every year is enough to feed three billion people – more than three times the total number who are malnourished. Wasted food represents about 8% of global GHG emissions, and heavily contributes to deforestation and the depletion of global water resources.

Turning to food production, steady climate change will inexorably alter what can be grown and where, but even more significant is the increasingly unstable pattern of weather it creates.  Hurricane Laura is a reminder, if we needed it, of the increasing strength and frequency of climatic shocks, suddenly reducing crop yields through excessive heat and cold, drought, flood and storms. The risk of Multi Breadbasket Failure – that is, simultaneous failure of staples like wheat and soya in the small number of countries which produce most of the world’s supplies – is predicted to triple by 2040. This would have massive repercussions everywhere on the price and availability of essential food.

So if that’s the disturbing picture for the world as a whole, what can UK communities do to manage our consumption and production so as to improve our food security?  Tackling food waste and inculcating healthy eating both start with educating our children, and there are some very accessible success stories published here on Carbon Copy, which can be adapted to any community.  The national Edible Playgrounds initiatives and Bridport’s Edible Garden project are all about engaging young children and their parents in growing and eating healthy food.

The potential for disruption of crop production here in the UK comes with warmer wetter winters, hotter drier summers, and more frequent extreme (by our standards) weather events such as heavy rainfalls and storms. Increasing climate instability means we should be ready for any kind of weather at any time of year. These changes are also likely to bring changes to pests and diseases, some welcome and others definitely not.

In a recent research study, Growing Through Climate Change: Local Responses to Food Security commissioned by Alan Heeks at Seeding Our Future, Elise Wach details the adaptive food production practices, crop choices and market models which could help improve local food system resilience in the UK in the face of these real risks.

“At present,” she warns, “we use our farming resources for commodities rather than food security: potatoes are produced for crisps, 40% of wheat goes to animals, sugar-beet is turned into ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, and maize is produced for biofuels and animal feed.”

Although her analysis and recommendations are focused on the Southwest of England, Elise, who is both a food systems research specialist and a grower, has packed the report with practical advice, which could be adapted by arable farmers and gardeners anywhere in the country: “While much work on food security needs to take place at a national level, there is also significant scope for local action to buffer changes, demonstrate the potentials for new approaches, regenerate agricultural ecologies and contribute to improved farmer and grower resilience to climate changes and shocks.”

The many practical and detailed recommendations she describes include: diversifying the food base with more resilient species appropriate to the region; techniques to improve water management and soil structure; introducing greater genetic diversity in crops; intercropping two or more plants in the same space, including trees; increasing non-crop biodiversity (eg, for pest management); reduced soil disturbance (no/shallow tilling and mulching), and post-harvest improvements to storage and processing.

Introducing these radical changes will take time, which is now in short supply.  “Producers and consumers have plenty of opportunities to increase the resilience of local food supplies,” insists Alan, “but grasping these opportunities will need determination, money and a willingness to innovate before the problems get more severe.”

Useful links:

Global Food Security a multi-agency programme, hosted by UK Research and Innovation, bringing together the main UK funders of research and training relating to food.

Growing Through Climate Change: Local Responses to Food Security, by Elise Wach (research report commissioned by Alan Heeks, founder of Seeding Our Future, a non-profit initiative focused on resilience).

Photo by Jake Gard on Unsplash

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