Preparedness: “What we’ve dealt with as a crisis, needs to be routine”

In this interview with Channel 4 about storm Eunice on 18th February, Baroness Brown said: “What we’ve dealt with as a crisis, needs to be routine”:

She’s absolutely right.

Preparation for the impact of climate change on the food supply system
We are indeed going to witness increasing frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events.

Any single event can have huge impact on, for example, food production. (1) (2).

What’s less well considered in socio-political decision-making, is their cumulative effects on the food supply system as a whole, both here and overseas. (3)

This, along with other factors, leads to a slow degradation of the system, for which we are currently unprepared.

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The good news
Although we can’t do anything to stop these wild weather events over the next few decades, wee can, however, mitigate their effects.

And better protect our natural capital. And reduce our carbon footprint.

And, as far as our food supply system is concerned, take two sets of actions:

  1. Take the actions necessary to stop the ‘slow degradation of the food supply system”
  2. Prepare for food shortages and scarcities
    • to include responding adequately to current/imminent shortages.

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1:  Taking action to reverse the slow degradation of the food supply system
A slow degradation of the food supply system is already upon us owing poor strategic decision-making, as for example.

  • What has led the UK to this Brexit, with all its effects on the sector. (4)
  • A few powerful global corporates, whose ‘drug-food’ products damage human and planetary health, allowed to dominate the supply system. (5)
  • The lack of investment in the food supply infrastructure; for example
    • in food safety, assurance and integrity (6) (7)
    • in processing technologies, notably in preservation processing (8)
    • in micro-climate technologies to increase UK horticultural production (9)
    • in preparedness!
      The first Covid-19 lockdown meant half our food supplies were literally locked up overnight, and for months. The effect if this, and other Covid-related issues, are still having profound, deleterious impact on food insecurity for millions of people.

Notice all of the above is about human decision-making; i.e. it’s in our power to reverse this slow degradation of the food supply system.

The accumulating effects of extreme weather events reducing the natural resources needed for primary production; i.e. land, soils, water and energy, (10) make this imperative even more urgent.

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2:  Prepare for food shortages and scarcities


On 10th January, the Guardian ran an article about how to solve the UK energy crisis — by storing more. The same is for any resource, including food, as illustrated in this edited version of the Guardian headline:

So if to be better prepared, we need to store more food, and in our just-in-time (JIT) supply system, what are the challenges:

  • Surplus production is wasteful.
  • Most fresh produce rots quickly.
  • Preservation processing costs, and we have little infrastructure in the UK for it.
  • Storage facilities are costly to set up and run.
  • Taking products out of the market place means lost revenue.

Challenges indeed.

In 2020, we set up a project to explore possible scenarios through workshops with sector professionals and others in the know.

Participants concluded that it wasn’t just desirable to have buffer stocks, it is essential. And feasible.

How?

  • A distributed buffer stock system; i.e. in localities across the country, run for communities by communities.
  • The rotation of stocks achived through setting up a new community catering service supply chain
    • and that would have the significant knock-on benefit of enabling access to safe, nutritious meals to all.

Yup, remarkable. (11)

We’re currently revisiting this earlier work, seeking to put numbers and detail into the model generated.

We will be reporting on that very soon.

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(1) e.g. see example 4 in this blogpost about the 40% drop in the 2020 UK wheat harvest

(2) See also, pp2-3 of our 2018 horizon scanning report: Back from the future; also page 4, section heading Variations in production and planning cycles. (Regarding the latter, the implication is that a flooded out orchard can take 10 years to become productive again.)

(3) see this blogpost: The huge quantities of food we need, including the discussion at the end.
note: Estimates vary as to how much food the UK imports, from a low of 40% to considerably higher, depending on how calculations are made.

(4) see example 5 in this blogpost.

(5) see this blogpost about how we can precisely identify who they are, and curb their power, as we have done with tobacco companies.

(6) The seeming indifference at a Government level to food safety, assurance and integrity issues is startling. see part of our response to the National Food Strategy Plan: What are their recommendations about ensuring food safety, assurance and integrity? (Short answer: None. And nowt about any of it in the Plan itself.)

(7) The situation at a local government level is no better: see page 6 of our Response to the London Food Strategy in 2018. Recent communications with Birmingham’s Heathy Food City initiative suggest things are the same in this city as it was in London in 2018.

(8) The lack of investment regarding preservation facilities and associated technologies was starkly evident during the first Covid lockdown. For example, cold storage (that’s the term given for frozen produce) rapidly hit capacity. Another example, was milk producers supplying the hospitality sector were forced to pour milk down the drain, whereas in some EU countries, there are spray drying facilities near dairies.
(see our Covid-19 commentary blogpost series for a contemporaneous account.)

(9) A challenging proposition, as there are high barriers to entry for fresh produce supplies, whether primary or secondary producers (for the use of those terms, see this function map of the food supply landscape).

(10) see our summary report: Global risks to UK food supplies, January 2019.

(11) As to how, see our first report on this initial work: One Scenario: Buffer Contingency Food Stocks.

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The Birmingham Food Council is a Community Interest Company registered in England and Wales number 8931789