British households have forked out an extra £600 for their food bills over the past two years due to the climate crisis and soaring energy prices, a new report shows.
The climate emergency’s impact on global food production is directly contributing to food price increases and fuelling the cost of living crisis, with further rises to come in 2024, the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) thinktank found.
Unseasonal weather conditions accounted for one-third of food price inflation in the UK this year, which paired with soaring energy costs driven by the Ukraine conflict meant that the average British household paid an additional £605 in food in 2022 and 2023.
And while gas, energy and fertiliser prices have since fallen from their peaks last year, climate costs have increased since 2022 – rising from £171 to £192 in 2023 – which “more than offset the effects of falling energy prices this year”, analysis by researchers at the universities of Bournemouth, Exeter and Sheffield found.
These increased impacts mean the climate emergency has now added more to food than energy bills since the beginning of 2022, with £361 of price increases attributable to climate change, and £244 to oil and gas costs.
Further price increases are expected in 2024, the ECIU warned.
Tom Lancaster, land analyst at ECIU, said: “Climate change is playing havoc with global food production, and this is inevitably feeding through to higher prices at the tills. Across 2022 and 2023, climate change alone added the equivalent of six weekly shops to the average household food bill.
“Added to that the dependence of our current farming system on volatile oil, gas and fertiliser prices, and the last two years has seen a perfect storm of extreme weather, high gas prices and global instability leading to unprecedented food price inflation.”
Heatwaves across the Mediterranean, India and South America in 2023 have all had a major impact on food production and global food prices this year, with food price inflation hitting nearly 20% in April and May.
Inflation levels have since fallen from those historical peaks but remain stubbornly high, at around 10%, recent ONS data showed.
Prices of store cupboard essentials like sugar, rice and tomatoes have all been hit by extreme weather, with olive oil increasing in price by 50% following two years of drought and heatwaves in Spain and other key exporters in southern Europe.
UK food supply is also under threat of heatwaves and other extreme weather in the Mediterranean, a region that provides a quarter of British food imports, the ECIU previously warned.
Earlier this year, British supermarkets were hit with countrywide fruit & veg shortages due to unseasonal weather events in Spain and Morocco.
In the UK, drought in 2022 hit key staples such as potatoes and onions. This has been followed by an unusually wet harvest in 2023, and the hottest September on record.
More recently, Storm Babet has left hundreds of acres of prime farmland under water, badly hitting supplies of potatoes and other vegetables.
Researchers expect global food production to be hit significantly next year as the cyclical El Niño weather pattern is already wreaking havoc in many areas of South America, Africa and Asia.
Professor Wyn Morgan, one of the authors of the Climate, Fossil Fuels and UK Food Prices: 2023 report – which he carried out alongside other researchers who have recently advised the government on the domestic and international drivers of food inflation in the UK – warned the climate crisis would continue to worsen and drive food inflation.
“Given we expect climate impacts to get worse, it is likely that climate change will continue to fuel a cost of living crisis for the foreseeable future”, he said. “With an El Niño event now confirmed, 2024 may have even worse in store for hard-pressed shoppers.”
Food campaigners urged government and industry to prioritise tackling the impacts of climate change on food prices.
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, said in response to the report: “We need action in three areas: first reducing the contribution which food systems make to global temperature rises; second creating a more resilient food system which can cope with climate instability; and third supporting families to become more able to cope with price shocks without being pushed into crisis.
“With an estimated 17% of households in Britain currently experiencing food insecurity, this is a top priority for policymakers.”
She called on Defra to revive its plans for a horticulture strategy that would bolster production of fruit and vegetables in the UK, so to reduce reliance on increasingly vulnerable southern European crops.