The era of cheap food is coming to an end, according to Tesco boss Philip Clarke. Increasing energy costs, burgeoning global populations and scarcity of food staples due to erratic weather are leading to increased costs. In the UK alone, the past year has given us droughts, flooding and a cold spring, which have affected crops and cost the industry millions.
Perhaps it is too early to say how this erratic weather is related to climate change, but no one can afford to wait and see. Retailers and food processors need to work with farmers to ensure Britain does not find its cupboards bare and to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the food they buy. This may involve significant investment but will be a huge step for businesses on short-term contracts to supply retailers and food processors.
Economic fair play can also help protect the environment. For example, the majority of the carbon emissions associated with food products occur before the stock hits retailers’ shelves and it’s only through more secure and longer-term partnerships that investments can be made in lower-carbon technologies.
The Carbon Trust has been working with Marks & Spencer and its UK asparagus supplier, Cobrey Farm. A five-year collaboration enabled a revolutionary new way of growing British asparagus to be discovered, which extended the UK growing season from August to October. This approach avoided importing asparagus from Peru, which saved approximately 610,000kg of CO2 emissions in 2012.
Collaboration will also help retailers inform consumers. The 25% reduction in British fruit and vegetable production last year left supermarkets unable to source the types of blemish-free produce customers had come to expect. However, after consumers were reassured about quality, more than 300,000 tonnes of ‘ugly’ fruit and veg made it into supermarkets in 2012.
These examples show that farmers cannot act alone and that food prices and climate change may no longer be just a point to debate at dinner parties. These issues could affect the dinner on all our plates.
Dr Paul Taylor is a consultant at the Carbon Trust