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Fighting climate change in the name of food security

If the next prime minister does not take the threat posed by climate change seriously, this won’t be the last time the challenge of food insecurity will need to be grappled with in the UK. That’s why they should put sustainable food production and nature restoration at the heart of their farming agenda.

Russia and Ukraine supplied more than a quarter of the world’s wheat before the war in Ukraine. The halt of this supply has sent shockwaves through the global market, contributing to the higher food prices which have dominated headlines.

However, the war has not been the only thing wreaking havoc on global wheat supplies. Much of the remaining 75% of the world's wheat supply was already under threat. The cause of this plight is climate change.

India has been a case in point. The country experienced highs of 47℃ this year which blighted wheat crops and sent domestic prices soaring. Scientists believe that this heatwave was made 30 times more likely by climate change. This impact on food production led the world’s second-largest wheat producer to impose an export ban on the commodity.

This incident is not an isolated one. Heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires have been destroying wheat harvests across the globe. This year in the United States, the winter wheat harvest potential in the country’s top-growing state, Kansas, is expected to fall by more than 25% because of droughts.

In Italy, experts expect barley and grain yields to drop 30 to 40% this year as the River Po, which farmers rely on for irrigation, is at risk of drying up. Wildfires in Spain have also destroyed 20,000 hectares of wood and farmland in a single locality. And farmers in the centre of Sardinia have been battling with a plague of locusts which arrived one month earlier than expected, due to the increase in temperature.

The UK is, fortunately, still 90% self-sufficient in wheat. But if we want to retain this same level of security, we must make our farmland more resilient to climate change.

With the UK on drought alert, unusual weather patterns are already taking their toll on our domestic agriculture. Wheat yields in the UK have been in flux in recent years. In 2018, they were 7% below the 2016 to 2020 average, and in 2020 were 17% below that average.

Heatwaves, droughts, and increasing water scarcity concerns demonstrate that climate change is beginning to take its toll at home. According to the government’s latest food security report, climate change and environmental pressures like biodiversity collapse are the biggest medium to long term risk to our domestic food production. This is an issue we simply cannot ignore.

If we are to meet the triple challenge of food security, nature loss, and climate change, our farms must become more biodiverse and resilient to climate impacts. The government is due to publish two strategies - for the biomass industry and land use sectors - in 2023, which will be essential to meeting our environment and food production goals.

At a time when people are struggling with rising food prices, a verdict that politicians from both sides of the house seem to agree on is that we should prioritise land to grow crops that can feed people, not bioenergy crops for machines.

As it stands, Europe burns over 19 million bottles of rapeseed and sunflower oil every single day. The UK alone grew 11,000 hectares of wheat just for biofuels in 2019. With food prices rising across the UK and abroad, the Prime Minister called for a review into the use of biofuels in domestic cars and vehicles to prioritise food production instead.

Although the conversation so far has been dominated by biofuels, it seems inevitable that before long, attention will turn to bioenergy too. In 2019, 67,000 hectares worth of maize was grown to feed anaerobic digestion facilities in the UK, which produce biogas, along with 10,000 hectares of miscanthus and short rotation coppice for biomass power plants.

If the government wants to get serious about its long-term plan to bolster food security, the Biomass Strategy, which is due to be published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) later this year, would be a good place to start. Here BEIS can set the parameters for a domestic feedstock industry and ensure that our supply chains are as sustainable as possible.

Defra's Land Use Framework will swiftly follow this strategy in 2023. As a small island nation, how we choose to use our land matters. The government must use this framework to optimise what limited land we have to help meet our essential food production and nature recovery objectives. As such, the obvious place to start is on our farms, which currently take up 71% of UK land.

High-grade agricultural land should, of course, remain dedicated to producing the food we need to feed our population. But farmers on this land should recognise that in order to keep this land productive, they must adapt their way of farming to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change.

By embracing lower input, nature-friendly techniques and technologies that improve the health of our soils, farmers can remain resilient to the worst impacts of climate change. This will bolster their food security in the medium and long term, and is exactly the sort of change in approach to farming that Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) intends to support and encourage.

But we must also acknowledge that not all farmland is created equally. There is no direct correlation between the amount of land we farm and agricultural output. For example, the least productive 20% of our agricultural land only produces a mere 3% of our calories.

To strengthen our food security, UK farmland that is good enough to grow food on should be doing exactly that, and in such a way that means it can continue to do so for generations to come. But our more unproductive land, that is not so good for growing food, should be put to better use. Giving some of the UK’s land back to nature is one such use.

Having land available explicitly for restoring nature and combating climate change is a vital part of the productive, resilient and sustainable farming sector we must create. And with economic opportunities to be seized for those that do transition their land, from eco-tourism to selling carbon credits, we can ensure that it is not just nature that benefits, but our rural communities too.

Now at the top of our policy agenda, we must not let food security slip down again because, sooner or later, climate change will cause it to shoot right back up. The next prime minister must, through the Biomass Strategy and Land Use Framework, demonstrate their commitment to tackling the intertwined challenges of food security, nature recovery and climate change.

First published by apolitical. Kitty Thompson is Nature Programme Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.


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