The likelihood of growing climate volatility and extreme weather incidents “wiping out” agricultural production and food systems is “increasing rapidly”, warns a leading expert.
Tim Benton, professor of ecology at the University of Leeds and head of the UK’s Global Food Partnership, said the likelihood of an extreme weather incident that could severely affect food production was a one in 30,000 year event in 1950. Now it has a probability of one in 40 years.
“The probability of extreme weather to the extent that it will destroy any local agricultural production is increasing very, very rapidly,” he said.
“That is quite frightening because plants and production systems are adapted to produce food under normal climates. If the climate continues to change, we will get to the point where this will simply fall apart.”
Food security challenges
Benton said this had significant food security challenges for the UK. With extreme weather incidents affecting more of the global area, “the UK wouldn’t be able to import its way out of difficulty”, he added.
“The traditional means of supply will have to change,” he said.
“Areas of high production will flash in and out as the weather changes. The traditional thought that we would be able to buy whatever we need on the global market will not be the case, especially as developing countries such as China start to flex their muscle.”
This would lead to an increasing pressure to store food for longer, “which creates a whole host of microbiological issues”, said Benton. It could also lead to the need to substitute certain ingredients, “which will be done either knowingly or subversively … to sustain supply”.
Benton was speaking at the official opening of the Food Environment Agency’s new International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL) in York. The facility will teach modern safety skills and regulatory requirements to overseas food scientists working for firms that export to the UK and EU.
“The IFSTL is a very good thing because climate changes, there will be far more emphasis around safety, because of the need to store food for longer. It will also be important to be sure that products are what they say they are on the tin and that it is correctly stated where they come from.”
The UK IFSTL is the second in the world. The first, at the University of Maryland in the US, opened in 2011. Both were public-private partnerships with analytical solutions company Waters Corp. It is understood that discussions are underway to open similar facilities in India, China and Australia.