Heatwaves threaten UK food imports from Mediterranean

14th August 2023


Increasingly severe climate impacts are threatening the UK’s ability to import fresh fruit and vegetables from parts of Europe and north Africa, a new study has found.

Analysis by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) shows that just over a quarter of food imports came from the Mediterranean region in 2022, with Spain alone accounting for 7%.

However, extreme heat and fire damage are resulting in lower crop yields, which is increasingly likely to leave less food in UK shops and markets, and lead to higher prices.

Some of these commodities cannot be grown in the UK at scale. More than half of the country’s lemons and sweet peppers come from the Mediterranean in 2022, along with two-thirds of all oranges and 40% of table grapes. The UK also relies on the region for over 80% of its olive oil.

With heatwaves, droughts, and other climate-related impacts set to become more frequent and severe over the coming years, it is possible that a healthy diet could become increasingly out of reach for the poorest in society.

“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,” said Gareth Redmond-King, ECIU’s head of international programme.

“Shortages of salad and other vegetables in UK supermarkets in February this year caused by extremes in southern Spain and north Africa brought home to people just how vulnerable the UK is to the impacts of climate change on our food.”

However, some of the commodities imported from the Mediterranean are foods that can be grown outside in the UK for at least parts of the year, or that can be grown indoors, using more expensive and energy-intensive processes.

This includes nearly all cauliflowers, broccoli and strawberries, and nearly two-thirds of the cucumbers and tomatoes which the UK imports, as well as nearly a fifth of the overall supply of onions.

Overall, the analysis shows that the UK imported around half its food from overseas in 2022 – approximately 37 billion kilograms – and half of that was food that is not grown in the UK.

This comes after previous research by ECIU found that climate change and fossil fuel prices added more than £400 to household shopping bills in 2022, increasing the total annual UK food shopping bill by around £11.4bn.

Meanwhile, polling commissioned by the not-for-profit Round Our Way suggests that 61% of Britons think that the recent European heatwaves will make food prices worse in Britain.

The polling also found that 61% think that politicians should be doing all they can to stop extreme weather getting worse, and that 74% believe that climate change is contributing to record high temperatures in Europe.

Roger Harding, director of Round Our Way said: “The impact of the deadly fires on the Continent are going to be felt here at home as it causes food prices to rise, and as ever, it's people on modest incomes who are going to be hit hardest.

“All of us want more breathing space from rising food and energy bills, and that means politicians starting to take the impact of climate change seriously and bringing forward plans to tackle it.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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