UK food security at risk from climate breakdown, says parliamentary report

“Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.” Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) new report on planetary health, entitled ‘Our Planet, Our Health’, highlights key climate change issues and how they affect all aspects of human health and wellbeing.

A row of crops sprouting
A row of crops sprouting
Tansy Dando

The UK’s food security is at risk from the effects of climate change according to a new report on planetary health by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The new report, entitled ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ and published on Tuesday (17 September), looks at the effects of environmental damage and climate change on health, food security, life in cities and air quality, and highlights the extent to which such changes could affect the health and well-being of the UK’s population.

‘Our Planet, Our Health’ is the result of the EAC’s inquiry into planetary health launched on 23 November 2018, which received 32 pieces of written evidence and held five evidence sessions with nine panels.

In particular, the report does not hold back on the government, accusing it of not taking seriously the potential impacts of climate change on food security, especially in the context of a no-deal Brexit. The UK currently has a high dependency on imported food, with 40 per cent of the country's food supply coming through imports, which could be disrupted after Brexit.

The EAC calls on the UK to take the threat of food insecurity caused by extreme weather and crop scarcity in countries directly affected by climate change from which the UK imports significant amounts of food, starting by taking action to produce more food in the UK and take action against food waste – some 10 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in the UK, contributing up to 30 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

A National Food Council is recommended by the report to deal with policy covering food production, nutrition and public health while more sustainable diets containing less meaty and dairy should also be promoted.

Commenting on the findings of the report, EAC Chair Mary 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 the future. Nearly 20 per cent of the UK’s fruit and vegetables come from countries at risk from climate breakdown.

“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.

Rapidly increasing biodiversity loss compounds the threat of climate change on food security, with a dramatic decline in insect populations increasing the risk of crop collapse, with insect pollination cited as an important form of reproduction for at least 87 types of common global food crops. These crops account for more than a third of annual global food production.

The use and exploitation of natural resources by humans has left an indelible mark on the planet – with scientists even going so far as to claim the world has entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, such is the impact of human society on the Earth. Extinction rates are currently 100-1000 times higher than that considered to be a natural rate of biodiversity loss, according to the Planetary Health Network at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Aside from food insecurity, this loss of biodiversity poses a number of direct and indirect implications for human health, including increased risk of transfer of pathogens from wildlife to human populations and the possibility that biodiversity loss might lead to reduced diversity in human microbiota, contributing to immune dysfunction and disease.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has set 20 goals (known as the Aichi Targets) to safeguard biodiversity, which are to be achieved by all member states by 2020. However the EAC’s report shows progress towards meeting these targets “falls woefully short.” 

The report urges the government to engage with the public on the next set of targets before the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference and set out clear priorities for action. 

The issue of the quality of urban environments did not escape scrutiny, with the EAC repeating calls for the introduction of a Clean Air Act to tackle the urgent issue of poor air quality in the UK’s major cities, as well as the inclusion of changes to the government’s review of building regulations to mitigate the negative impacts of indoor air pollution, while cities should be set with a water consumption target of 100 litres per capita per day to manage the risk of water insecurity.

The report stresses the need for leadership to address the issues raised in the report, stating: ‘To tackle the urgent concerns relating to public health, food security and the environment raised in this planetary health inquiry, strong national and international governance is required.

‘Continuing the global leadership shown by legislating for net zero emissions by 2050, the UK Government should now highlight planetary health at forthcoming international meetings, including the 2020 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. As host of the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties) the Government should ensure that planetary health is a key theme of the discussions.’

You can read the EAC’s full Planetary Health report on the UK Parliament website.