Soil erosion risk to food supply chains

14 February 2019

Up to 2.2m tonnes of UK topsoil is being eroded annually and over 17% of arable land shows signs of erosion, a report has warned.

The report, from think tank IPPR, said nearly 85% of fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia has been lost since 1850, with the remainder at risk of being lost over next 30–60 years.

The report said the UK has been described as  one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world” and policymakers are failing to fully recognise and respond to the threat posed by climate change.

“Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic outcomes in societies around the world is rapidly closing,” said IPPR.

According to the report, global topsoil is now being lost up to 40 times faster than it is being replenished by natural processes. Meanwhile 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion since the mid-20th century.

Extreme weather conditions such as floods or extreme heat can undermine the ability of regions to grow crops. The impact of a poor yield can present a significant issue, especially for countries that import and export large quantities of food, the report said.

Global food supply chains have been optimised for efficiency with an understanding that there may be supply volatility, but the increased prevalence of extreme weather conditions exposes these networks to increased risks.

While production of the biggest global crops is concentrated in a small number of countries, often regarded as ‘breadbasket’ regions, extreme weather conditions in these countries has the potential to severely impact produce availability and in turn increase prices.

As well as the impact extreme weather conditions may have on food production, unsustainable water use has meant that four-fifths of world’s population is now living in areas with a threat that demand for water will outstrip supply, the report warned.

As well as the impact of environmental breakdown on global supply chains, the report said the systemic effects could be felt in the UK, as the country does not have a self-sufficient food system and imports up to 48% of total food consumed.

The report said Global Food Security, a UK cross-government programme on food, has also argued that the UK is particularly vulnerable to environmental shocks to the food supply chain.

“Shifts in understanding are needed across political and policy communities, regarding the scale and pace of environmental change, the implications for societies, and the need for a socioeconomic transformation,” said the report.

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