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ARU study suggests food shortages will lead to civil unrest





A new study, surveying some of the UK’s leading food experts, has found that food shortages caused by extreme weather could lead to civil unrest in the UK.

Civil unrest is classified as more than 30,000 people in the UK suffering violent injury in one year through events such as demonstrations and violent looting.

Combine harvester in a barley field – but the UK’s reliance on food imports is a cause for concern
Combine harvester in a barley field – but the UK’s reliance on food imports is a cause for concern

The study, titled ‘Scoping Potential Routes to UK Civil Unrest via the Food System: Results of a Structured Expert Elicitation’, was co-authored by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and the University of York. It is published in the journal.

The 58 experts who took part in the research were then asked to rank the possible causes of food shortages, and the foods most likely to provoke civil unrest.

The results show that 80 per cent of experts believe logistical distribution issues leading to shortages are the most likely food-related cause of civil unrest in the next 10 years. But, considered over a 50-year horizon, they said catastrophic failure resulting in insufficient food to feed the UK population, rather than distribution problems, would be the most likely cause. Popular carbohydrates such as wheat, bread, pasta, and cereal are the most likely to cause flare-ups.

Professor Aled Jones, director of ARU’s Global Sustainability Institute
Professor Aled Jones, director of ARU’s Global Sustainability Institute

Extreme weather – including storm surges, flooding, snow and drought – was chosen as the most likely cause of food shortages and food distribution issues over both the 10-year and 50-year time frames.

The researchers say that one of the key issues is that the food system has been optimised for efficiency rather than resilience and faces major challenges in the future – from not just climate change, but a combination of factors that increase the level of risk.

Professor Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU, and also lead author, said: “By mapping out the potential risks, and their possible causes, we hope this report will assist with the preparations needed to avoid a UK food system catastrophe.

“Government agencies, as well as business, must explore and fund options to increase the resilience of the food system including ecosystem restoration and management, storage and distribution, working conditions, sustainable farming practices, consumer engagement, as well as tackling food poverty and mitigating climate change. The Covid pandemic saw major disruption to food distribution and consumption from which lessons need to be learnt.”

Vegetables and fruits, many of which are imported
Vegetables and fruits, many of which are imported

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.”

The study was funded by an APEX Award from the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.



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