Supermarket shortages could be early sign of the predicted 'perfect storm' of climate change, food and energy crises – Philip Lymbery

Shopping these days can feel like a bit of a lottery. Wandering into the local supermarket can have me wondering which of my favourite foods is going to be out of stock today.

How many of us recently have pushed our trolley to the end of the aisle, only to be faced with a battery of empty trays and an apologetic note? In recent months, fresh fruit and vegetables have borne the brunt of shortages. Mayonnaise, Diet Coke and beef have also been reported as scarce. All of which heaps further angst onto shoppers who, not surprisingly, still remember fuel shortages from not so long ago.

According to a YouGov poll in February, 61 per cent of us have experienced food shortages in local shops and supermarkets recently. That was the month when several of the UK’s largest supermarket chains introduced rationing – limits for shoppers on fresh produce lines that included tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

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It seems we’ve been hit by a combination of bad weather, rising fuel prices, disease, and supply chain disruption caused by the war in Ukraine. Countries relied on for winter imports of salad items, including Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, have been hit by severe weather. Supplies from British farms have been hit with producers cutting back on planting salad crops due to rising costs of heating greenhouses.

Eggs too have been in short supply recently, with farms having been hit by spiralling costs and the worst-ever bout of bird flu. All of which has meant that UK egg production has fallen to its lowest level in recent years. Nearly a billion fewer eggs were produced in 2022, which led to supermarket rationing.

Future food supplies at risk

In her opening speech to the National Farmers Union annual conference in February, its president, Minette Batters drew attention to how the cost of agricultural inputs had increased by almost half since 2019, with particularly steep price hikes for fertilisers, energy, and animal feeds.

To be honest, it’s a crisis that we’ve seen coming. Over a decade ago, UK Government’s chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, predicted how the impact of climate change colliding with food and energy scarcity would likely produce a “perfect storm”. Russia’s war in Ukraine has helped bring matters to a head, causing price hikes for artificial fertilisers and animal feed. It has also led to the disruption of food supplies to vulnerable nations.

Empty shelves in supermarkets are a worrying sign of problems in the global food supply system (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)Empty shelves in supermarkets are a worrying sign of problems in the global food supply system (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)
Empty shelves in supermarkets are a worrying sign of problems in the global food supply system (Picture: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Countries particularly dependent on wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia include Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran as well as Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan. In a world increasingly likely to face climate change-induced weather disruption, creating havoc with future food supplies, this is something that concerns all of us.

Grain drain

It underscores why we shouldn’t take food for granted. We certainly shouldn’t be wasting it, whether by putting good food in the bin or feeding it to farmed animals. On that latter point, what I’ve discovered is that we feed more than a third of our entire grain harvest to intensively reared animals – pigs, chickens, and cattle kept in confinement, rather than on pasture.

It’s a scandal that really shouldn’t be happening. When kept on pasture as part of regenerative farming, cattle and other animals can satisfy much of their hunger by eating grass and foraging. There will always be some genuine food waste in the supply chain, and this can be recycled by feeding it to pigs and chickens to top up their diets.

But keep animals inside for their lifetime – a common practice now, whether in Scotland, England or Europe, and they rely on animal feed. As it stands, enough grain is fed to intensely reared animals worldwide to feed four billion people – that’s half of humanity alive today. If we stopped this wasteful practice in the UK alone, it could free up the equivalent of half of Ukraine’s annual wheat exports.

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Which goes to the heart of what is needed to avoid worsening the perfect storms of the future. The food sector is responsible for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, making it the biggest single contributor. Growing food takes up half the world’s habitable land. How we produce food has a big bearing on so much else.

As I’ve highlighted recently, the United Nations warns that if we carry on with intensive agricultural methods, then the soil on which the vast majority of our food production relies could be gone or useless within about half a decade. Sobering stuff.

Genuine sustainability

A big worry is that difficult times lead to further entrenchment of thinking and less willingness to change. In the European Union, for example, food shortages today are being used by some to argue that the Commission should water down its much-needed proposals for the greening of agriculture.

The EU Commission’s ‘Green Deal for Europe’ includes timely proposals to improve animal welfare and reduce environmentally damaging practices by banning cages, reducing the use of pesticides and antibiotics in farming by half, as well as reducing fertiliser use. It also proposes to greatly increase organic farming.

These would be hugely welcome steps toward genuine sustainability, ensuring that we can produce food tomorrow, as well as today. It represents a vision that would lead us from the short-sightedness and short-termism that has dogged farming policy for so long in Europe.

It is a position that British policymakers too would do well to emulate. It would be the clearest signal yet that our leaders were waking up to reality and making the hard decisions needed to save food from impending perfect storms.

Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and award-winning author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and his latest Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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