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Solace blog

30th November 2018

How prepared are you for threats to our food supplies?

Ensuring a population has enough safe, nutritious food to eat is a fundamental responsibility of those in charge of local and national governments. Until this summer, it was a responsibility few if any of us had considered for decades.

This summer, however, a national conversation about the threats to our food supplies began to emerge, owing to the Beast from the East earlier in the year followed by the heat and drought along with stories of stockpiling food if a hard Brexit happens.

As we learned during the 2012 tanker drivers’ strike when PM David Cameron was ready to order the Army in to keep food supplies going, the 83% of the UK population who live in urban areas have access to only a few days’ food supplies.

What if, as in the summer of 2017, supermarket shelves are empty of cucumbers, lettuces, and courgettes? Not a lot in the event. A twitter storm during the 3-4 days it took for alternative supplies to be sourced instead of the flood-damaged crops suddenly unavailable from southern Europe.

Cucumber Riots? They were never going to happen. Bread riots would be another matter.

Here are a few of the many reasons why civil unrest looks set to happen unless local and national government have aforethought and planning in place regarding the threats to our food supply:

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 1.8bn people will be living with absolute water scarcity by 2025, a mere six years hence. Two-thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed areas, as people in London and the south east already do. The UK breadbasket of East Anglia is entering its second decade of being classed as ‘semi-arid’ while a major part of Syria is entering its second decade of drought. If you haven’t got water security, you haven’t got food security.

Many of those 1.8bn will join those people already on the move because of climate change or war.

The 7.7bn of us now alive need to be fed, plus another 2.5bn by 2050, but from significantly less land, perhaps a third less. Factors include soil erosion (East Anglia has been losing topsoil at a rate of 1-3cm/year since 1850), carbon sequestration (forestation to you and me) and extreme weather events. Drought is dire enough, but flooding can ruin a crop within hours, and it can take years for the land to recover, if ever.

Add in, too, soil nutrient depletion. And pollution. Every industrialised country has contaminated soils as well as air. Food grown in such places causes, among other effects, cognitive stunting. China, who cannot supply enough food for its population, has the gravest challenge in this regard; it’s estimated that a third of children in rural China are cognitively-stunted with pollution playing a significant part. This begs the question as to our children being cognitively stunted owing to nutrient deficiency caused by pollution and/or poor diet.

Few grasp the scale of operations required to keep a population fed and fed well. London’s 8.8M population requires 17.6bn kcal/day, 6.42 trillion a year (actual intake is ~11 trillion/year).

Nor do most of us realise the increasingly fierce global competition for sufficient, safe, nutritious food. Four-fifths of the world’s population, including us, depend on food imports for their survival. The UK is densely populated; we necessarily import ~40% of what we eat, including 80% of our fruit and veg from the EU.

The safety, assurance, and integrity of UK food is widely held to be one of the safest in the world. Nonetheless, in 2014, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reported 1M cases of food poisoning the previous year, of which half were caused by identified pathogens. 20K people were hospitalised, and over 500 people died.

More will suffer or die owing to funding cuts on food inspection and testing. Birmingham, which has ~500 new food businesses a year, had only 11 FTE EHOs to serve a population of 1.1M when the FSA carried out an ‘unscheduled’ inspection in 2015. This city, as many other Local Authorities, no longer does any food testing, an invitation for food fraudsters and organised criminals to do their worst.

We at the Birmingham Food Council CIC have been thinking long and hard about how to get socio-political decision makers to take notice of any or all of the above, and plan accordingly. We’ve developed a (tad frightening) Game that helps you do just that.

The Game is for:

❖ A group of local authority Chief Execs who want to explore and understand the impact of food security on their communities.
❖ A Chief Executive who wants to challenge his/her top team to think differently about the security of their community
❖ A Combined Authority policy team that is looking for ways to reconfigure their economy.

The Game will help participants:

❖ Understand how national and global events affect what people in your community get to eat
❖ Think about what that means in terms of the long term health and prosperity of communities
❖ Give you an alternative way to think about economic as well as emergency planning
❖ And give you a reason to justify that stack of old tins of beans at the back of one of your kitchen cupboards

By Kate Cooper. Birmingham Food Council

1. For information about what it takes to feed London, see our response to the draft London Food Strategy, July 2018.
2. For a more detailed understanding of the challenges, you could be facing, see our horizon scanning project report Back from the Future, January 2018.