Environmental change and food security – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

Related inquiry: Environmental change and food security

Date Published: 8 December 2023

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Climate change and biodiversity loss affect the quantity and quality of food produced both in the UK and across the world. British people have already started to see the effects of that on their dinner plates: 2022’s summer heatwave diminished the yields of certain British crops, while extreme weather in Spain and Morocco earlier this year caused empty shelves for some fruits and vegetables. The impacts of environmental change also coincide with those of other crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to place further stress on the global food system.

While environmental change threatens to weaken food security on the one hand, on the other, the food system is one of the biggest drivers of climate change and nature loss, exacerbating the very environmental factors that threaten to undermine the food system. As a result of our investigation, we frame our findings around three core pillars:

a) Climate change and biodiversity loss are taking place, but we can and must respond to them. We need to adapt our food and farming system to become more resilient to the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss.

b) If the global rise in temperatures does not slow down, extreme weather will become more frequent, further undermining food security, and requiring yet more adaptation. Achieving food security goes hand in hand with achieving net zero and biodiversity targets. We must mitigate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on our food system.

c) The way we currently produce our food globally is one of the most significant causes of climate change and biodiversity loss, compounding the problem in a vicious cycle. We must mitigate the damage to the environment that aspects of our food system cause.

In this inquiry we focus on food security in terms of the UK’s ability to provide enough food for its population, in a sustainable way. Currently, the UK imports around 42% of its food, and produces 58% domestically. Self-sufficiency is an important part of food security: many of the countries from which the UK imports food are at risk of the effects of climate change, potentially jeopardising supply in the future. The UK particularly depends on imports for certain categories including fruit and vegetables, so we especially encourage steps to improve the UK’s self-sufficiency in those areas where environmentally and financially viable. However, the UK’s food security is inseparable from the global food system. To rely on domestic production alone would increase the UK’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in the UK, and even food produced at home depends on a wide range of imports from abroad including animal feed and fertilisers.

The food system both globally and in the UK has become too concentrated and too driven by price alone. It rang loud and clear throughout our inquiry that the Government and the food sector must focus on embedding more diversity of produce and farming methods within the food system, both to build resilience against the effects of environmental change and to reduce the food system’s own impact on the planet.

In light of our three pillars; the inseparability of the UK’s food system from the global system; and the imperative to introduce more diversity and resilience, we summarise our most important recommendations to the UK Government to keep Britain nourished while protecting the planet:

1. Since the UK’s food security depends on some degree of imports, it is vital that environmental harms are not exported abroad by allowing the importation of food that is produced to lower environmental standards. The Government should uphold standards for the environmental impacts of food production in its trading relationships with other countries.

2. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs collaborates with other Government departments and with industry on food security issues, but it was clear from our evidence that this work is neither sufficiently co-ordinated nor long-term. We recommend that the Government establish a cross-government, cross-sector food security body to bring together all the actors in the food system to examine and make policy recommendations on long-term food resilience and environmental issues.

3. The Government has committed in statute to publishing an assessment of UK food security once every three years. While that is welcome, we recommend that due to increasing volatility in food supplies, caused by extreme weather as well as recent geopolitical and health crises, the Government should publish its food security report annually.

4. Preventing and reducing food waste at all stages in the food chain would be a quick-win for the Government and should be a central component of the Government’s strategy for maintaining food security in the face of environmental change. We recommend that the Government publish a strategy for preventing and reducing waste in the food system.

5. The agricultural sector is crying out for a common standard for baseline metrics so that progress towards food sustainability can be accurately measured and compared. We welcome the progress that the Government is making towards establishing baseline food sustainability metrics and methodologies, but the sector needs more clarity about what is coming down the tracks and when. We recommend that the Government list all the areas in which it intends to establish baseline metrics and tools for food sustainability, which we think should include soil health, carbon sequestration, biodiversity net gain, and carbon credits.

6. Soils are a victim of the more extreme weather events caused by climate change. But healthy, resilient soils are critical to the UK’s food security. The Government must publish much more detailed advice on soil health, including guidelines for farmers on how they may accurately and affordably measure key environmental indicators in their soils such as carbon and biodiversity.

7. Water management on farms is going to become increasingly important as the climate changes. Using water more efficiently and storing it for use during droughts, as well as managing demand overall, is going to be critical. To achieve these aims, the Government should develop policies to transport water more easily and quickly between regions across the UK; roll out precision irrigation technology across the UK farming system; and publish an implementation plan to meet the target of increasing water storage on farms by two thirds by 2050. In rolling out precision irrigation technology, the Government should mitigate against efficiency paradoxes and report on the impact on water usage.

8. The Government committed, in its food strategy in June 2022, to publishing a Land Use Framework, to provide a set of principles for decision-making to ensure that English land performs the many functions required of it. It was clear from our evidence that the Land Use Framework will be a critical lever in determining whether the UK will achieve the three pillars set out in our report. The Government has committed to publishing the framework this year: that deadline is fast approaching. We expect the Government to publish its Land Use Framework no later than the last sitting day in December 2023, and recommend that it must fully integrate food security as a central principle. It must evidence how the Government’s goal of improving productivity within existing uses can be achieved without negative environmental impacts; and provide its methodologies for calculating how the objectives of enhancing food security and meeting the Government’s targets on net zero and biodiversity will be met.

9. The Government does not want to tell people what to eat, but from its approach to healthy eating it clearly understands its role in helping people to make better choices. In any case, if the Government will not tell people what to eat, the advertising industry will: we heard that for every £5 spent on public health education, £200 is spent on junk food ads. The Climate Change Committee is clear in its advice that across the country meat and dairy consumption should reduce by 20% by 2030 and by 35% by 2050 in order to achieve the Government’s net zero target. There is plenty that the Government can do to encourage sustainable diets without being prescriptive. We recommend that the Government should set a target for half of public money spent on food to be produced within the local area or to higher environmental standards; publish national guidance on sustainable diets; and include within the school curriculum science-based education about the environmental impacts of food production.

10. The Environmental Land Management schemes are another vital opportunity to adapt the UK food system to the effects of environmental change and minimise the environmental impacts of the food system. The schemes are based on the principle of public money for public goods, but the Government takes for granted that food security is a public good. We think this is not good enough. We recommend that the Government designate food security as a public good and incorporate food security and environmental goals more explicitly in the design of Environmental Land Management schemes.

11. To achieve the diversity needed for a resilient food system, the UK must produce food through a variety of different farming methods spanning a spectrum from a return to more traditional methods, to agroecology, to the latest in cutting edge technology. We recommend that the Government publish its priorities for agricultural innovation research and development—referring to the list we compiled from the extensive evidence we received—to provide clarity for researchers, industry, and investors.

12. New food technologies are an exciting area which can help to reduce the environmental impacts of food production and grow foods domestically for which the UK currently over-relies on imports. However, the point is defeated if the emissions associated with new technologies outweigh the environmental cost of importing the same product. We recommend that the Government publish a strategy for technological innovation in food production, to include trials, understanding emissions, regulation, and making new technologies accessible to small farmers.

13. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, for farmers to transition their businesses to the most environmentally friendly practices, their options need to be commercially viable and they must have access to high-quality, locally tailored support and advice. We recommend that the Government ensures that small famers have access to advisory services that are free to use; monitors take up of advice services by farms of all sizes; and co-designs with farmers support mechanisms to incentivise the take-up of technological innovations in food production.