UK food basket at risk from extreme weather

BANANAS, rice, tea, coffee and sugar are amongst £8bn of foods the UK depends on from countries struggling the most to cope with worsening droughts and floods.

The analysis of government trade data by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) also found that £2bn worth of food comes from just eight of the poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change: Kenya, Brazil, Peru, Vietnam, India, Colombia, Belize, and Ivory Coast.

Pakistan – one of the top 10 rice producers, and second-biggest source of UK rice imports – saw yields fall by up to 20% in the aftermath of devastating floods in 2022. Modelling by World Weather Attribution scientists suggested the rainfall that caused the flooding had been made 50% more intense by climate change.

Gareth Redmond-King, Head of International Programme at ECIU, said, “We can’t grow rice or bananas in the UK, so when the countries we import from get hit by floods, droughts or heatwaves, yields go down and prices can go up. The UK Government is funding projects around the world to help food producers face these challenges with measures to, for example, reduce and reverse land degradation, support farmers to access markets, and to shift agriculture methods from subsistence to sustainability. But as climate change creates ever more extreme weather, more of that support will be needed to keep the food flowing, but beyond certain temperatures there are limits to what we can do and some of these crops will simply fail.”

Many of the foods we import cannot easily be grown at home as they require a specific, often tropical or sub-tropical climate. Climate change is shifting weather patterns; for example, tea-growing land in Kenya is diminishing as a result of prolonged hot and dry periods, and more unpredictable rainfall. In Vietnam, coffee production has been hit both by more extreme storms damaging crops, and by prolonged heat that degrades the quality of the coffee beans. And cocoa production in Ivory Coast has been hit by the rainy seasons changing, meaning that there is not enough rainfall during the growing season.

According to analysis by Carbon Brief, the UK has provided £12.63 billion in international climate finance since 2011/12, and up to 2022/23. 80% of that has gone to funds or institutions that disburse finance from multiple nations. Of the remainder, which the UK has allocated directly to developing nations, some of our key low-climate-readiness food supplying nations have received the following:

  • Kenya (our largest supplier of tea): £377.5m
  • India (our largest suppliers of rice): £144.8m
  • Colombia (our largest supplier of bananas): £108.4m
  • Brazil (largest supplier of soya, melons, and guavas, mangoes and mangosteens): £72.3m
  • But several of the nations that supply our top ten most vulnerable foods – Belize, Ivory Coast and Peru – received no climate finance directly from the UK in this period.

Dr Rihab Khalid, Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge said, “This is yet more clear evidence of how climate change profoundly impacts everyday life, bringing the discussion to our kitchens and dinner tables. The £7.9 billion of UK food imports that originate from nations with low climate readiness​​includes essential staples like rice, half of which comes from India and Pakistan.

“The escalating impacts of climate change in developing countries not only threaten the lives and livelihoods within these countries but also have ripple effects to our food security in the UK. If we want to protect those livelihoods overseas, and secure our food into the future, then instead of cutting Official Development Assistance overseas, the UK would be far better moving beyond mere aid and work to invest more in adaptation and resilience in the countries worst affected.”

Overall, according to the Climate Change Committee, a fifth of our country’s critical supply chains originate in areas of particular climate vulnerability; that rises to half in the case of our food supply chains. UK trade statistics show that 16% of our food imports came directly from nations with low climate readiness last year, which are those that are not only exposed to climate impacts, but also lack capacity and preparedness to adapt and respond. rice

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