A new study led by researchers from the University of York and Anglia Ruskin University surveyed food industry experts across academia, policy, charities and business on the frailties of the UK food system.
In the study, civil unrest is classified as over 30,000 people in the UK suffering violent injury in one year through events such as demonstrations and violent looting.
Of the experts surveyed, more than 40% believed that civil unrest in the UK in the next 10 years was either possible (38%) or more likely than not (3%). This increased to nearly 80% over the next 50 years – either possible (45%), more likely than not (24%) or very likely (10%).
Causes of disruption
The survey went on to ask what the most likely cause of food disruption would be – not enough food being available overall or problems with food distribution – over the course of 10 and 50 years.
Experts believed that logistical distribution issues leading to shortages are the most likely food-related cause of civil unrest in the next 10 years (80%). However, catastrophic failure resulting in insufficient food to feed the UK population was of bigger concern over the 50-year period.
Professor Sarah Bridle, chair of food, climate and society at the University of York, said: “Covid 19, Brexit and the cost of living crisis have shown the UK is already exposed to certain risks. The food system faces significant challenges. We are experiencing an increasing number of extreme weather events, many driven by climate change.
“It is entirely possible that in the coming decades extreme weather will cause major crop yield failures across multiple breadbaskets. We need a food system designed not just for optimal efficiency, but also for resilience.”
Ranked most likely to cause unrest
Wheat, bread, pasta and cereal were ranked the food most likely to lead to unrest, while extreme weather – including storm surges, flooding, snow and drought – were chosen as the most likely cause of food shortages and food distribution issues over both the 10-year and 50-year time frames.
However, rather than one single driver (extreme weather), the food experts felt that a combination of factors – including ecological collapse, trade restrictions, a financial crash, rogue AI, a new pandemic and animal or plant pathogens – was most likely.
Sue Newton, GB Food & Beverage Leader at WTW, added: “In an increasingly connected world it has never been more important for businesses to think beyond single risks and solutions. Governments and businesses need to be ready for multiple scenarios, reactive when the exact situation doesn’t unfold as scripted, and aware of the art of the possible.
“This research supports organisations in understanding the various pathways that might unfold to feed into their risk planning, and build resilience by identifying needs to support prevention, preparedness, response and recovery planning.”