Global Agriculture

‘Perfect storm’ of COVID-19, climate change, biodiversity loss and Brexit affecting UK food security

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04 February 2021, UK: The COVID-19 pandemic, already a major shock to society in terms of health and economy, is affecting both UK and global food and nutrition security and adding to a ‘perfect storm’ of threats to society from climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation at a time of considerable change further compounded by Brexit, according to the first report of a major research effort into the state of UK food security.

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The emerging research project, led by the James Hutton Institute in collaboration with Chatham House and Cranfield University, is assessing the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the four pillars of food security: access, availability, utilisation, and stability. Researchers are examining the UK’s food system, how it is responding, and potential knock-on effects on food and nutritional security, both in terms of the cascading risks from the pandemic and other threats.

Findings indicate that whilst global food production and trade has enabled imports to remain relatively stable and internal production has maintained sufficient supply to avoid severe issues of food availability, physical and economic access has been severely impacted. This has made more visible previously identified flaws in the food system of inequalities and variation in diet quality in the UK population. The newly redundant or self-employed people who lost their source of income due to the pandemic has exacerbated an already increasing reliance on food banks and charity support for low-income sections of society.

Project leader Dr Mike Rivington, a senior scientist based at the James Hutton Institute, said: “UK food and nutrition security are heavily dependent on global markets. Nearly half of the food we consume is imported and UK livestock industries rely heavily on imported feed.

“COVID-19, as a systemic shock that has critically impacted on food systems and the economy, highlights the need to consider resilience rather than efficiency as a guiding principle. Recovery from the pandemic will be challenging but given the additional and mounting climate and biodiversity strains, is also an opportunity to rebuild the food system and address wider threats to society.

“Our research will provide government, businesses and other decision-makers with evidence to help develop robust and sustainable food systems which are better placed to respond to the current pandemic and future risks and opportunities.”

Professor Tim Benton, Emerging Risks Research Director and Director of the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House and a partner in the project, added: “COVID-19 has stress-tested our food system from the point of view of a supply-shock. It is an exemplar of the sort of shocks that climate change and environmental degradation may throw at us, with increasing frequency in future. 

“Understanding what properties make our food system resilient (or not) will be key to ensuring adequate food supply in the decades ahead.”

The initiative is funded with a £341,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.

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