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What can we do to prepare for problems?

In his work on Deep Adaptation, Jem Bendell is clear that disruption of food supplies is the most likely first major impact of the climate crisis on the UK and that he expects this to cause major societal disruption in the next five to ten years.  I have been asking Jem to spell out the likely forms of supply problems and their social impacts: he and his team aim to publish papers on both topics by the end of 2019.

The form and timing of supply disruption is hard to predict, as it will depend on specific weather impacts. Jem describes two main potential problems:

  1. General weather patterns across Europe and beyond are shifting towards longer periods of intense heat and drought alongside more episodes of torrential rain and very high winds. These factors have already reduced yields for various crops in Europe by 20% in the past three years, and reductions are likely to increase.  A report in September 2019 by the European Environment Agency predicts production drops of up to 50% by 2050 in Southern Europe.
  2. Multi Bread Basket Failure (MBBF) describes the risk of weather-induced crop failures of major global staples (e.g. wheat, rice, soya) in most of the major producing countries, in the same year. Experts are now saying that there is a substantial risk of MBBF sometime in the next five to ten years. This is likely to cause staple supplies to run out, and/or extreme price inflation.

This blog doesn’t offer answers: it’s simply a short briefing on the threats, plus some guesses at ideas and responses to explore, and an invitation to contact me if you can help the exploration.

Here are my initial thoughts on what to explore:

  1. Adaptive cultivation methods. Compared to many countries, the climate outlook for the UK will support plentiful food production, if methods and crops are changed substantially. At a simplistic level, if we harvest more of the torrential rain, and supply both this and partial shading in drought periods, viable cultivation could continue.
  2. Adaptive crop choices. We need to analyse the imported crops most vulnerable to supply interruption along with the need for dietary and production changes to cut carbon emissions from farming (less cattle etc.) What we’ll probably need in some cases is an alternative crop that can be grown here.
  3. Voluntary production subsidies. For many years Britain has had a cheap food policy, importing food from the lowest-price suppliers. The ideas in A and B will probably require consumers to pay a price premium for new UK production, which initially will be more costly than imports. This may sound optimistic, but I don’t think most producers can afford to do this otherwise.

This could be a form of community-supported agriculture, whereby consumers who commit to paying a subsidy now get preferential access to crops in future, at prices which will be less than market rates in a crisis.

  • Allocation of scarce supplies. This is a very tricky issue. In times of war, national governments set up rationing schemes and control distribution. A Parliamentary Committee earlier this year described the UK Government’s preparations for climate change impacts as “like Dad’s Army”. My guess is that the issue needs unpicking and then exploring on several fronts.

The first step would be to pull together a brief to clarify the threat. This is not my area of expertise. I suspect there’s considerable forecasting data already available, plus material soon from Jem’s team. The second step would be to send the brief and ask questions about preparedness for food shortages, with a range of contacts:

  • UK Government (for example, via MP’s?)
    • Local government
    • Supermarkets?
    • Local emergency response organisations? (e.g. Red Cross, Civil Defence?)
    • Local community groups, including faith groups

I have set up an open meeting in my home town, Bridport, inviting a range of local organisations plus individuals to explore what we could do as a community in response to all four of these questions. I will post updates in future blogs.