Climate change threatening security of UK's food and medicine supply, MPs warn
The UK's failure to tackle climate challenges in food supply chains overseas is risking national food security and the NHS is "not sufficiently resourced" to deal with global warming, a new report from MPs has warned.
Published by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) today, the ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ report examines the likely impacts of climate change of the health and wellbeing of the UK population, through its likely impact on the food sector; the healthcare system; cities and other urban living environments; and nature and wildlife.
On food, the report accuses Ministers of ignoring advice on food security from the Committee on Climate Change, which, in 2017, recommended that new policy measures to manage climate-related risks to UK food prices should be implemented swiftly.
It notes that the UK is highly dependent on imported fresh food, which often hails from regions likely to be impacted by climate-related trends such as increasingly prevalent heatwaves, rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns and water stress. Overall, 40% of food sold in the UK in 2018 was imported, with 20% coming from nations currently considered to be the most affected by early climate impacts.
Moreover, the report states, food production in the UK is also likely to feel the impacts of these climate patterns, with crops having already been affected by water shortages following heatwaves and livestock vulnerability to disease set to increase on the road to 2050.
The EAC states that these pressures are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years by the impacts of Brexit, concluding in its report that it is “deeply concerned about the impact of food price rises on the poorest people in the UK, particularly vulnerable groups like children and pensioners”.
The report comes as the UK Government is developing its National Food Strategy (NFS) and urges those behind the development of the policy framework to “ensure” the legislation recognises and mitigates food security risks arising from climate change.
It additionally calls for the NFS to include plans to help the UK public reduce the consumption of red meat and dairy – both of which have been linked to land misuse and rising agricultural emissions by experts – and to detail annual targets for tackling food waste at every level of the food supply chain. Such measures, the EAC claims, will be crucial to aligning the UK’s food sector with net-zero by 2050.
EAC chair Mary Creagh MP is also calling for Ministers to publicly publish all the information they hold regarding the likely impacts of a no-deal Brexit scenario on food costs and food security. The Government’s so-called Yellowhammer dossier outlining what the Government believes will happen in a “plausible” but “worst-case” no-deal scenario states that the Government is “not able to fully anticipate all potential impacts to the agri-food supply chain” – but is anticipating that “certain types of fresh food supply will decrease”, pushing prices up.
Away from food, the other key sector examined in the report is healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
The EAC states that this sector is “not sufficiently resourced to deal with projected changes” resulting from climate change, including a rise in diseases such as Lyme disease, malaria and the zika virus among UK residents. Other medical conditions which are predicted to become more prevalent and severe as the average global temperature increases are heart and lung disease, kidney problems, digestive illnesses and mental illnesses.
As is the case with food, the UK is dependent on pharmaceuticals from overseas. Many of these products, the EAC claims, have short lifespans and hail from regions likely to be affected worst by climate change.
Moreover, pharmaceuticals are another key concern raised in the Yellowhammer dossier. The six-page document states that the flow of products into the UK through the short Channel Straits – a journey 75% of medicine distributed in the UK annually will make – could decrease to 40% of typical levels.
In order to tackle these challenges, the EAC is urging Public Health England to broaden its key performance indicators to include climate resilience and adaptation measures, and to work more closely with local government to provide support for those vulnerable to heat stress.
It additionally wants Ministers to set more ambitious short-term targets aimed at aligning the NHS with the UK’s net-zero goal – particularly across the areas of buildings, transport and fluorinated gases. The NHS has reduced its carbon footprint by 18.5% since 2007, putting it off-track to meeting its 2020 target of a 34% reduction within the same timeframe, as laid out in the original Climate Change Act.
“As the largest employer, and one of the largest consumers of goods and services in the UK, the NHS should bring forward its targets to end the use of coal (2023/24) and oil (2028/29) for primary heating on NHS sites,” the EAC report states.
“This target should now be revised to reflect the Government’s commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the very latest. A new pathway for carbon reduction should be developed by April 2020 and communicated to all stakeholders. The NHS’ carbon footprint should be clearly communicated to staff, patients and suppliers, with messages on how they can contribute.”