Climate Change And Brexit Could Risk UK's Food Supply, MPs Say

Sarah Turnnidge

A failure to act on climate change, coupled with Brexit uncertainty, could risk food supplies, MPs have warned. 

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee states that people’s health could be at risk from the spread of new diseases and heat stress as the climate warms – a situation the NHS is not yet ready to deal with. 

The document also said the government should promote a reduction in the public’s intake of meat and dairy products in a bid to boost environmental and health benefits.

Planning authorities should also be able to restrict the number of fast food outlets in their areas in order to provide better access to healthy, sustainable food in cities, the committee has said. 

Climate change is projected to have major impacts on food systems around the world, affecting the UK’s ability to deliver healthy, sustainable diets – with the nation’s agricultural industries hit by weather extremes and the spread of livestock diseases.

A crop of barley badly affected by the heat wave and drought of the summer of 2018

The government needs to recognise the risks to national food security from importing 40% of the UK’s fruit and vegetables, including from countries which are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A dependency on imports, combined with government “complacency” over the impacts rising temperatures could have on food production, is risking national food security – compounded by Brexit trade uncertainty, the report found.

Committee chairwoman, Labour’s Mary Creagh, warned the country faced a “food security crisis” and called on ministers to publish all the information they held on food security and costs in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The MPs raised concerns over the impact food price increases could have on the UK’s poorest people, particularly pensioners and children, and urged the government to set out how it plans to maintain food security in a changing climate.

In order to limit the risks associated with depending on importing foods, committee members suggested there should be new national food strategy which would which could support more sustainable growth in the UK. 

They said that the Agriculture Bill, which will govern agriculture after Brexit, should encourage a switch towards more sustainably produced food, including environmentally-friendly farming methods to cut greenhouse gases.

Along with damage to agricultural production and provision of nutritious food, rising temperatures could also hit health with direct impacts such as heat-related deaths in heatwaves.

The report directly addresses this threat, concluding that the NHS and pharmaceutical industry did not have the resources it needs to cope with these changes .

The committee also said that Public Health England should start offering GPs guidance on emerging tropical diseases, such as malaria and zika, as temperatures rise, and should offer local authorities more information about how to protect vulnerable people - particularly the elderly - from heat stress.  

Creagh said: “Everything we do to the planet, we do to ourselves. The health of the planet matters because it affects what we eat and whether we can eat in future.

“We are facing a food security crisis, exacerbated by uncertainty over the UK’s future trading position with the EU and the rest of the world.

“Ministers must now publish all the information they hold from Operation Yellowhammer on food security and likely costs in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”

And she warned: “More people are living in cities at risk from over-heating and water shortages, they’re breathing polluted air, eating more fast food and getting less exercise.”

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