This year’s soggy British summer may well have presented a different argument. But with most of southern Europe ablaze in one of the continent’s worst heatwaves on record, stiflingly hot and volatile weather now poses an existential threat to our food supply.

That was the stark message from the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit today, in an in-depth new report that warned heatwaves across Europe and north Africa risked adding tens of billions of pounds to future grocery bills here in Britain.

With World Meteorological Organization research from last November revealing temperatures in Europe were increasing at more than twice the global average, the ECIU’s Spotlight on the Mediterranean report warned the increasingly volatile weather conditions found in some of Europe’s best and biggest growing regions was now threatening the UK’s food security.

Food imported into the UK from the Mediterranean represented more than half of our total food imports, the non-profit thinktank pointed out, with Spain alone – which is experiencing some of the worst climate impacts in the region – accounting for 7%, representing £4bn worth of food.

Europe saw its hottest summer in 2022. And this was followed by the world’s hottest June in 2023 and the hottest sea surface temperatures in July – with the Med recording a record 28.7°C in the same month.

A key cog in the UK food supply chain

So as a result of these climate events, food production was now being significantly harmed, the ECIU argued, with water shortages, extreme heat and fire damage hitting crops, reducing quality and lowering yields.

The Med supplies 64% of the UK’s oranges, 39% of its table grapes, 57% of its red peppers and 83% of its olive oil, the report revealed, while it also backfilled a whole host of other fresh produce supplies when they were unable to be grown in the UK during certain parts of the year.

But due to the pressures heaped on to the region by the climate crisis, this key cog in the UK food supply chain was now struggling to maintain supply, and this could impact all of us in the pocket and in terms of choice in the mults, it warned.

“Even when we’re not experiencing extreme weather, we are not immune to its impacts in a globalised world,” said ECIU’s head of international programme Gareth Redmond-King, citing the impact salad shortages had on UK supermarkets this February.

“It’s sobering to realise just how much we rely on food imports that come from parts of the world most at risk from the changing climate,” he added.

“These impacts will worsen as we continue to burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases, leaving the UK facing an unpleasant reality in a future of more shortages and higher costs.”

Invest a hell of a lot more cash in production

But in the wake of a separate report, published by the NFU on 9 August, which revealed the UK would have run out of food last week had it depended purely on British supply, Redmond-King also warned “we can’t simply grow our way out of the problem by producing many of these foods in the UK”.

Increasing self-sufficiency has always been the dream of bodies such as the NFU, yet it admitted last week this remained a distant goal in the current climate for our beleaguered farmers, with president Minette Batters stating “our supply chains are [currently] too vulnerable”.

The NFU wants greater government support to reduce our dependency on imports, and perhaps self-sufficiency may well improve in the wake of recent supply chain reviews into dairy and pork – which offer producers greater rights in their dealings with buyers – and reviews into the egg and fruit supply chains set to follow.

But as Redmond-King also noted, we will also need to invest a hell of a lot more cash in production if self-sufficiency is to improve, while the “only sure-fire way to avoid even worse and more dangerous impacts is to keep global temperature rises to 1.5°C, and the only way to do that is to cut our emissions to net zero”.

And taking either route – or both – will also prolong the inflationary pressures we’ve seen over the past two years for many more to come.