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Food in a changing climate

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THE main preoccupation in the UK of late has been with budgetary cuts and rationalisation of government agencies, but a report published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) last month provides a useful reminder that there are some significant issues to be addressed in the meantime. The report, on the implications of climate change for UK food policy,1 is of interest not just because it highlights an important issue but because it deals with aspects of food policy that might not fall under the remit of the agency for much longer.

The report describes the results of a review carried out for the FSA by researchers at the University of East Anglia, which aimed to examine all interactions between climate change and food, covering issues such as how food and food waste can contribute to climate change, and the impact that climate change might have on nutrition and the food choices made by consumers. Although the review was commissioned specifically to help inform FSA policies, responsibility in some of these areas – particularly nutrition – is soon to be transferred to the Department of Health, following the Government's review of its arm's length bodies. However, as far as veterinarians are concerned, it is the sections of the report dealing with livestock production and food safety that will probably be the most relevant.

While pointing out that the effects of climate change are likely to be more difficult to deal with in other parts of the world, the report makes clear that there is no room for complacency in the UK. It remarks: ‘As the UK is not self-sufficient in food, issues of climate change and social unrest (a possible consequence of climate change) in the rest of the world will not be only of academic or compassionate interest.’ It also points out that, because the UK buys food in an international market, ‘the way that foods are produced in other parts of the world, their relative abundance or scarcity, will directly impact on the UK and the health and well being of its citizens.’ Highlighting the complexity of international food chains, it explains how the uncertainties associated with climate change might be expected to affect the availability, price and quality of food in the UK.

Discussing greenhouse gas emissions associated with food, the review, like previous reports on this subject, draws attention to the relatively high contribution made by meat and dairy consumption, and discusses ways in which this might be reduced in the future. At the same time, it draws attention to inconsistencies in the way emissions are calculated. It calls for systematic reviews of the emissions resulting from different foods that take account of methods of production, processing, transport, packaging, storage, cooking and disposal, to inform future policies.

On food safety, the report notes that there are many mechanisms by which climate change could have an impact on pathogens affecting food and consumers, and that it could also lead to changes in the chemical inputs to food, through, for example, altered use of veterinary medicines and pesticides. ‘The common theme emerging for food safety is altered risks and increasing unpredictability,’ it says, adding that ‘this suggests the need for increased horizon scanning to predict new risks, and greater speed in addressing emerging threats.’ It highlights the importance of veterinary surveillance in detecting and assessing emerging threats to animal and human health, suggesting that this is likely to become even more important under climate change. It also draws attention to the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. Interestingly, although the report suggests that effects of climate change on food safety may be relatively limited in the UK because of the surveillance systems and mitigation policies already in place, many of the agencies currently involved, such as Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the FSA itself, are those affected by the Government's review of its arm's length bodies. There is a danger that these activities could be disrupted as a result of the review, and care must be taken to ensure that these vital functions are not undermined as the Government's plans are implemented.

On an international level, the Food and Agriculture Organization issued a plea for ‘climate-smart agriculture’ last week,2 in advance of a global conference on agriculture, food security and climate change. Although primarily concerned with improving food security in developing countries, the FAO's call serves to emphasise that, on this issue at least, the UK is but part of a wider whole.

Footnotes

  • 1 Food and climate change: a review of the effects of climate change on food within the remit of the Food Standards Agency. Available at www.foodbase.org.uk

  • 2 ‘Climate-smart’ agriculture: policies, practices and financing for food security, adaptation and mitigation. Available at www.fao.org

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