Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  The challenge of climate change

41. The biggest long-term challenge for food security, at the global and national level, is the impact of climate change. Thus our food production systems, and the Government's approach to food security, which suit us well as present, will need to respond to this challenge if we are to guarantee food security in the future.

42. The UK Committee on Climate Change, an independent statutory body established under the Climate Change Act of 2008, raises concerns about the possibility of a shortfall in water during dry periods, and of soil degradation resulting from intensive agriculture, both as a consequence of climate change and population pressures.[45] Professors Benton and Crute said that, although we know that temperatures will increase, we do not yet have a good understanding of what will happen to the jet stream which steers our weather patterns. However, it is most likely winters will become wetter and summers drier and hotter in the UK, and extreme weather events more frequent.[46] Professor Benton said:

    Climate risks are inherently uncertain as they [also] depend on the future emissions pathway and the eventuating climate impacts. The impact of extreme weather on food production is increasing; but its future impact is, by its nature, very difficult to predict.[47] [...]

    Hence it is about thinking through the systemic response to climate change and having a likely scenario that you are working towards, whether it is four degrees, or understanding better the extremes of and variability in the weather.[48]

Responding to climate change

43. The Food Ethics Council argues that climate change risks are not adequately incorporated into UK food security strategies and planning. Other witnesses also told us about the need for food systems which took account of climate change. Peter Kendall, then NFU President, told us that our agriculture could cope with small changes in temperature but not large ones. He said the agricultural sector needed to build resilience and, in particular to protect its physical infrastructure, to withstand extreme weather.[49]


44. While changes in our climate may be less hostile to agriculture than in other parts of the world, all agriculture is vulnerable to extreme weather events and conditions. Indeed witnesses told us it was the number one challenge for our food production.[50] The NFU writes that since the turn of the century farming in the UK has suffered significant financial losses as a result of a number of extreme events including £1.2 billion in 2012, £66 million in 2007, and £603 million in 2000-01 and, across the EU, the heat wave in 2003 cost European farming €13.1 billion.[51] The 2013-14 winter floods also affected significant amounts of agricultural land. The NFU has stated that:

    About 49,000 hectares of agricultural land was flooded in a one week period including about 14,000 hectares on the Somerset Levels and Moors and large areas in the Thames and Severn catchments and along the South Coast of England. In addition about 2,600 hectares flooded during the December tidal surge along the North coast of Wales and East coast of England, but it is still too early to assess the financial cost to farming.[52]

45. The farming community would benefit from early warnings of extreme weather events. Professor Benton talked about the importance of longer term weather predictions:

    We need to understand better the environment system. That includes investment in decadal-long weather forecasting so farmers can plan water resources and infrastructure, and includes thinking about soils and how soils will be impacted and the whole range of plant/environment interactions.[53]

Professor Beddington concurred saying:

    I think there is real scope for linking meteorological prediction more closely to the farming community. Everybody watches Country file these days or listens to Farming Today and you get a forecast, but it is well within the capability of our meteorologists now to predict on forecasts of a few days away very accurately, but also giving you some idea three or four weeks ahead. For example, not this last winter but the previous winter, it was pretty much predicted we were going to have a very, very cold period at the tail end of January or, last summer that we were going to have a fairly mild autumn. These are the sort of things that the farming community could benefit from a lot. [54]

46. Food Security Ltd, a farmers' organisation, said the Met Office had a long history of translating its science to provide services to decision making. This expertise could be used to help the agricultural industry become more resilient.[55] We note that Defra and DECC have co-funded UK CP09, a climate information service provided by the Met Office which can assist with interpreting possible future climate conditions based on different scenarios, and wonder whether a similar service for weather forecasting could be created.

47. Nevertheless, the farming community also needs to be able to put in place appropriate response measures, and the Government has a responsibility to ensure its policies encourage this. Minister of State for Agriculture, George Eustice, told us the Department's strategy for responding to climate change impacts on food security was based on the Foresight Report findings indicating that it was largely a longer-term problem, creating stresses in the food systems predominantly in the subtropical and equatorial regions of the world.[56] The Government was promoting a number of initiatives in response to climate change, including, in particular, the uptake of new technologies:

    We have [..] encouraged and been at the forefront of saying that we should have an open mind to new technologies, such as genomics and also GM crops, where there is the potential that you could breed more drought-resistant varieties of crops. That could be very important for those areas that suffer the worst impacts of climate change. I would say, through a combination of the Agri-Tech Strategy that we are pursuing, combined with our view that we should open world markets and have food trade, those two key measures are the key measures that we would need to mitigate the risk of climate change.[57]

48. Defra told us it was working towards a more sustainable agriculture through productivity improvements resulting from sustainable intensification, reductions in post-harvest losses and climate-smart technology.[58] Defra produced a climate change evidence plan in March 2013,[59] but we have not yet seen an action plan resulting from this.

49. The IPCC's 5th assessment report of March 2014 makes strong connections between climate change and its potential impacts on food security without appropriate adaptation strategies.[60] However it focuses on the need for strategies for adaptation which distinguish between incremental and transformational adaptation (or paradigm shifts) to climate change, and for methodologies for decision making under circumstances of climate impact, adaptation and vulnerability.[61] While many Governments are addressing issues of incremental adaptation, less is being done in relation to transformational adaptation. Issues of risk assessment and planning relating to climate change impacts on UK agricultural and food system were not widely explored in any detail in the Foresight Report.

50. Climate change will have significant implications for our agricultural production in the long run. While it may be that the UK climate becomes better suited to particular types of agriculture, farmers will need the know how to adapt their crops or livestock without productivity losses and in a sustainable manner. Farmers would be greatly assisted by having access to more reliable long range weather predictions so that they can be better prepared for extreme weather events and conditions.

51. We urge the Government to explore the cost implication for farmers of access to more long term weather forecasts as a first line of defence against extreme weather.

52. Building on the Climate Change Evidence Plan, the Government must produce an up-to-date action plan for reducing UK emissions. This should draw on the conclusions of the latest IPCC Report and on the methodologies for risk assessment outlined in it.


53. While protection against extreme weather is important and a very real threat, in the long run there is a need to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector. As part of its response to climate change the Government has committed to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions across England by 80% by 2050. Agriculture accounts for approximately 9% of the UK's total GHG emissions. Projections for this sector show only a 2% reduction by 2020 and little further reduction by 2030.[62]

Reducing emissions from livestock

54. Cattle and sheep are the largest contributors to GHG emissions in the agriculture sector. Livestock as a whole contributes 49% of agricultural emissions. Professor Beddington suggested that identifying ways to reduce this was still an under-researched area.

UK Agriculture Emissions from Livestock (direct)
Livestock (enteric) emissions 31%
Unmanaged field deposition of manure 8%
Manure as fertiliser 10%

Source Bob Watson, The Government response to the Foresight Report on Food and Farming, Oxford Farming Conference, 2012.

55. The BBSRC told us about their research which found that feeding cattle high sugar grasses helped to reduce livestock emissions. Sainsbury's and Asda were reported to be trialling this.[63] Defra is also funding some research into agricultural GHG abatement to assess the potential for mitigation of livestock genomics and breeding, reproductive efficiency and livestock dietary manipulation.[64]

56. BBSRC said there was need for additional experimental farm sites to carry out research so that "different aspects of water run-off and greenhouse gas emissions can be measured under different agriculture regimes in different parts of the country."[65] Rothamsted Research Institute is currently the only place carrying out farm-scale research in this way in relation to lowland sheep and beef. We visited the North Wyke Farm Platform where scientists are testing the hypothesis that intensive beef and sheep production systems can be developed with less impact on the environment. We discussed the need to encourage consumers to eat less, better-quality meat.

57. We were impressed with the range of practical research we saw at Rothamsted Research Institute. There is an important role for ruminant livestock on less intensively-farmed and environmentally valuable hills and uplands in the UK where a significant reduction in livestock numbers would have negative consequences for these environments.

58. The bulk of our meat and dairy however is produced on lowlands, and if this is to continue, there is a need for greater research effort and funding directed at reducing emissions from more intensive beef, sheep and dairy farming systems. Given the limited projected progress made in reducing emissions from the agricultural sector as a whole, the Government should identify, as a priority, specific actions which will ensure the sector can meet national greenhouse gas reduction targets.

45   Committee on Climate Change, Managing the land in a changing climate, 2013 Back

46   Q41; Climate change making extreme rainfall in England more likely, The Guardian, 30 April 2014 Back

47   Tim Benton (FSY 0054) para 16 Back

48   Qq16, 43 Back

49   Q125 Back

50   Qq 70, 83 [Professor Beddington]; 125 [Peter Kendall]; 130 [Peter Kendall, Tom Taylor]; 163 [Callum Murray] Back

51   NFU (FSY 0029) para 26 Back

52   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2014-15, Winter Floods 2013-14, HC 240. NFU (XFL 0024) para 8 Back

53   Q43 Back

54   Q70 Back

55   Food Security Ltd (FSY 0042) para 6 Back

56   Q267 Back

57   Q298 Back

58   Defra (FSY 0044)  Back

59   Defra, Climate Change evidence plan, 2013 Back

60   IPCC, 5th Assessment Report, 14 March 2014 Back

61   IPCC, WGII AR5 Ch 14 Adaptation Needs and Options; IPCC WGII AR5 Ch 2 Foundations for Decision Making Back

62   Defra, Greenhouse Gas Emission Projections for UK Agriculture to 2030, 2011 Back

63   Qq249-51 Back

64   Defra (FSY 0056) Back

65   Q250 Back

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Prepared 1 July 2014