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Resilience, diversity and food security

IPCC warns about the effects of climate change

The global pandemic and recent extreme weather events have exposed our level of resilience to major system shocks.

Nowhere is this more applicable than in the agriculture sector. On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report, drawing attention to the impact that the climate crisis will have on food production globally.

In the UK there tends to be the view that these issues are reserved for those in the global south. Or that we may even benefit from better growing conditions in the future. But this is a dangerous and increasingly naive assumption.

Earlier this year, the UK government’s climate change advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published an assessment of our climate risks, finding that crops, livestock and commercial trees were at high risk from multiple climate hazards. This has material impact- during the 2018 heatwave, yields of onions, carrots and potatoes declined by between 20-40%. Experts now believe that the UK could routinely face temperatures of over 40 degrees and increased rainfall, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees. This brings with it impacts to crop yields, livestock welfare and increased disease and pest risk.

What we need is a conversation about food security.

Free-trade advocates would suggest that we can continue with our reliance on food imports. Maybe, but the IPCC report made it extremely clear that this is not without significant risk. A recent study found that more than 44% of the EU’s agricultural imports will become vulnerable to drought in the future. Alarmingly, the Food Research Collaboration found that UK ‘food defence’ is weak, meaning we ‘could not feed our people adequately, let alone well, if there was a severe supply or trade crisis’. This all comes at a time when farmers are expected to continue producing food, reduce GHG emissions, improve on-farm biodiversity whilst somehow freeing up land for other land uses like tree planting.

Woman picking vegetables from the ground

What we need is a conversation about food security. As the recent National Food Strategy points out, this does not necessarily mean becoming self-sufficient and growing all our own food – in any event, we will need alternative supply routes as a backup - but it does mean ensuring we incorporate resilience into our agri-food systems.   

Resilience can be defined as the ability to respond to, and recover from, disturbance and crucially this is enhanced by diversity. In ecology, diversity underpins ecosystem functioning. Nutritional diversity is associated with better dietary health. In the workplace, a diverse mix of people enhances the overall team whilst in an investment portfolio, diversity offers protection against shocks to any single investment.

Diversity is critical for agriculture.

A comprehensive meta-analysis has shown that diversity at the farm level overwhelmingly promotes multiple ecosystem services (including biodiversity), usually without compromising yields. At the landscape and national level, greater crop diversity is associated with increased stability of total national harvest. In the UK it has been demonstrated that diversity of land use plays an important role in ensuring agricultural returns remain stable, and resilient, in the face of uncertain agricultural conditions. Despite this, diversity in the global food system remains staggeringly low- a mere twelve plants and five animal species now account for 75% of the world’s food.

What role can agroecology play?

Agroecology is sustainable farming that works with nature. It involves enhancing functional biodiversity, conserving and improving soils, cycling nutrients and optimising productivity. Organic farms, that draw on agroecological practices, have been shown to be more resilient in the face of climate change.

Agroforestry, a practice that incorporates trees with crops or livestock, and is used extensively in lower-income countries, can bolster on-farm resilience to weather extremes and can increase income diversity. Alternative approaches, like sustainable intensification, will only be appropriate if they are underpinned by adequate resilience. Without agroecology in the mix, this is doubtful.

Government must wake up to these risks and these opportunities by listening and working closely with farmers on the front line. In the coming months it is vital that we see:

  • A bold response to the National Food Strategy in the new year, that supports farmers to continue leading with innovation and research in agroecology.
  • Agroecology and resilience placed at the heart of the Government’s upcoming Net Zero Strategy ahead of COP26.
  • Future food security assessments (as promised every three years in the Agricultural Act) that face up to the existential threats posed by climate change here in the UK and overseas.