Vicki Hird is an award-winning author, expert, strategist and senior manager working on environment, food and farming issues for over 25 years. As Sustainable Farm Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, Vicki leads on farm policy and related campaigning. Prior to this role, she was Director of Campaigns and Policy at War on Want, Head of Land use, Food and Water Programme for Friends of the Earth, Founder and Policy Director of Sustain, and Director of the SAFE Alliance.
There is little doubt that climate change will affect our food ‘security’. Equally, what we chose to eat has a major impact on climate change.
But what is food security? It makes more sense to propose that people should have ‘nutritional security’ (not merely calorific food security) and should have control over how they buy and prepare their food. The term ‘Food Sovereignty’ is increasingly used to describe this right at a wider level – it means communities having control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed to create a food system that is designed to help people and the environment rather than make profits for multinational corporations. This is not the same as ‘food security’ which is often misunderstood and, put bluntly, can mean just having the finance to buy food from wherever it is cheapest.
In the UK we have come to rely heavily on both fossil fuels and on overseas markets for our food supply. This makes us:
- Vulnerable to supply shocks,
- Unsustainable in terms of emissions, chemicals, loss of control in complex chains and connection with farmers and
- Irresponsible – creating impacts and drawing land and water supplies from around the globe – trade is not bad per se but should be sustainable and ethical.
Is climate change going to affect our nutritional food security here in London? Yes, in the longer term we will be at risk from less stable supplies of food especially from overseas. Foods like chocolate and coffee, high value vegetables from Africa, are all already at risk as climate change creates extreme weather, droughts and pest problems.
Most of us, but especially city dwellers, depend very much on others to provide our food and remove our waste. That means a small impact on supply chains in some key areas where our food comes from could be significant (e.g. sea level rise or prolonged drought in areas supplying bread wheat or disease incidence caused by climate change in priority fruit supply regions). Extreme weather events could affect normal UK production too. We need to consider how many days away are we from price hikes or empty shelves? Just seeing shelves empty of hummus and courgettes recently seems to cause panic in a daft way. But inevitably, if prices rise the most vulnerable will feel the impact first and if safety nets are not there the poorest will suffer.
But the reality is that no-one believes right now that there is a threat to our plentiful supplies of food from climate change. The shelves in London generally groan with the fruits of food workers globally. So we need to consider that inertia when we plan and we need to work out how we can have the conversation.
The flipside is that our current food system has a huge impact on climate change. In short it is responsible for between 20 and 30% of all greenhouse gasses (GHG) globally and as diets change (more meat eating for instance) that proportion is set to increase. The major impacts come from farming and land-use change, with fertilisers, pesticides, manure, farming and land-use change together contributing as much as around 24% of global GHGs. Livestock contribute 14.5% of human-made GHG emissions. Later in the food system packaging, retail, transport, processing, food preparation and waste disposal combined contribute around 5-10% of global GHGs.
Cities like London have the power to create solutions as well as being a huge part of the problem. We should know what the Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory for our city is (including from land use change overseas) and water and land impact. That will help determine how we can be part of the solution.
The truth is that cities only exist because they are allowed to – they rely externally for food supplies, for removal of waste, for water, for workers to stack the shelves, cook the food. But do cities understand the vulnerabilities and the impact this has? Do we apply that knowledge to food related policies such as on retail planning, transport and infrastructure, food procurement, public health and so on.
Looking ahead, do the future London plans increase our ability to access healthy sustainable diets, for producers to produce sustainably (such as increasing organic production and increase fruit and vegetable production) and, crucially help tackle the food system’s climate emissions?
Here’s a few ideas to get started for eating, farming and how we govern for individual nutritional security and wider food sovereignty:
We should aim to have a debate about the food we eat. It rarely features in elections yet we vote for our food three times a day!
1. Promoting Sustainable diets. The evidence base is absolutely clear we need to eat more plants and less junk food and less and better meat. Meat and dairy have a huge GHG contribution – reducing and improving intake could provide win win win scenarios: drastically improve nutritional security by reducing land water take, whilst increasing efficiency of calorie use, reducing emissions and contributing to healthy eating targets and so on. Zero food waste is part of a sustainable diet and is a no brainer. Any food materials arising as ‘waste’ can be fed to livestock or used in compost or small scale energy systems.
2. Have we considered climate refugees in planning for future supply needs? What of the future increases that are inevitable and how would Greater London cope with 5, 10, 40% more people. Can we plan for a bigger London to feed itself.
3. We need to demand that Corporations act - especially those that process or retail food and the food service sector - to genuinely reduce climate impacts (such as using of electric vehicles, encouraging lower climate eating for staff and customers - encouraging sustainable diets in their customer base or workforce). The recent initiative by Wellcome Trust, Oxford University and Sainsbury’s PLC is an excellent example.
Farming and producing – the supply side
It is fair to say that farmers are due to experience the biggest change in farm policy in the UK for decades as we leave the European Common Agriculture policy. Farmers and growers have an uncertain future with both subsidies being reformed (or removed) and trade deals affecting what they can sell where and who they compete with.
1. Determining the climate impact of these changes would be mindboggling. But supporting local, good farmers who produce in the way you want is important. That way they don’t have to choose only from one big multiple supermarket or manufacturing company to sell to. You can buy from farmers markets, members of the Better Food Traders Network or invest in great schemes such as Sutton Community Farm or the Ecological Land Coop.
2. We need councils to support local distributing and processing hubs to make supply less vulnerable on major hubs, diversify production and support local horticulture.
3. We should demand protection for all high quality Grade 1 farm land around London for food growing and consider the urban hinterland for new market gardens instead of housing, airports or other developments. This could increase urban food production and distribution. This is especially suitable formore perishable horticulture crops and as land for new entrants into farming.
4. Sustain has a major programme of training and supporting people and communities to grow food to get multiple benefits(98,000 people have been involved in Capital Growth, 2443 growing spaces created and 64000 meals produced). The climate impact hard to assess but the dietary impact, skills and health impact are clear, and where we know less meat and less processed food is eaten that’s a clear climate win. We would like to partner with others and seeing how we can measure the carbon impact of our initiatives. Whilst inevitably not the main solution, urban growing may have local nutritional security impact especially if scaled up.
5. Some of the most vulnerable workers are those in the food supply chain and these may well be experiencing food poverty and be the most vulnerable if supplies become constrained. We need to protect food workers and push for living wage and decent conditions for all food workers so we don’t risk Food system failure via worker failure.
Policy makers should and can prioritise climate change action in food systems and set targets to reduce the greenhouse gasses from the urban food system. Health too is a key priority and getting food right can deliver lots of mutual benefits. Policy makers need to plan for changes in our food supply. Think about the ‘what ifs’ and learn from other places on how to build a resilient food system and resilient communities and resilient individuals.
One key actions must be to drive excellence in procurement so change the menu (to the Eatwell plate guidance), change sourcing to sustainable low carbon supplies eg organic, less and better meat, and ensure producers here or overseas can produce in ways that protect workers, soil, water – future growing.
These are just a few ideas. Sustain has much advice and projects and campaigns to help deliver better food and farming – do check our website and get involved.