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This is what climate change looks like

News that supermarkets have been rationing broccoli and iceberg lettuces was met with the usual British stiff upper lip.  But we should ask a few searching questions about why produce that we have taken for granted is suddenly unavailable, and what this might tell us about the resilience of our globalised agriculture system.

The main reason that iceberg lettuces and a growing list of vegetables and fruit are in short supply in Britain is that unseasonably cold weather has destroyed crops in southern Spain – a region that northern Europe depends upon during what used to be called “the lean months” when British farms could not provide fresh vegetables, and consumers had to use up the remaining root vegetables from the previous harvest.

But why has Spain – and much of the Mediterranean – experienced unseasonably cold weather?  This appears to be due to this year’s polar vortex – a supposedly rare event that has occurred twice in the last three years.  In December, exceptionally warm air pushed up over the North Pole, raising temperatures to only just below freezing.  The displaced mass of cold air that would normally cover the Arctic in winter was pushed much further south into eastern and southern Europe.  So a few weeks ago, central Europe experienced an unseasonable cold snap; and in the last week or so, the Mediterranean, and even the Persian Gulf have been hit.

This is ‘weather’ rather, necessarily, than ‘climate’, so we cannot rule out that this event might be just one of those things.  That said, just like the increased frequency and ferocity of Atlantic storms, it is what we were warned climate change would look like.  So, what would happen if, instead of being a freak event, cold Mediterranean weather became a once every two or three years event?  Could Spanish farmers remain profitable if their crops were to fail every two or three years?  If not, does northern Europe look elsewhere for its food or does it go back to the days when people did without?

While it is theoretically possible to become much more self-sufficient in food and to return to seasonal variability, in practice Britain – which can only produce 60 percent of the food it needs – exports a significant proportion of its harvest precisely on the understanding that it can import from regions that have harvests at different times of the year.  So long as the climate remained stable, this globalisation of agriculture helped keep food on the table all year round.  But an unstable climate that results in crop failures at key times of the year could seriously disrupt the current arrangements.  As a recent report from The Global Food Security programme points out:

“Extreme events – such as widespread droughts – in the natural environment have been shown to perturb our globally interconnected food markets, and have contributed to food price spikes (in combination with other factors such as export restrictions). Crossing an environmental tipping point has the potential to contribute to market effects in a similar way, but with the perturbation being long-lived or even permanent.”

Not being able to access iceberg lettuces is hardly the end of the world, and it is unlikely to trigger the kind of food riots that almost always precede revolutions.  However, this is the first time that a climate-related event has had a noticeable impact on the availability of food in Britain.  Far from laughing it off, we should consider just how vulnerable a country of 65 million people is when its agricultural base can only support 40 million.

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