Climate change and its importance for the food industry

Date : 08 September 2020

Alan Hayes

Head of Sustainability

“Climate change will remain a top priority, as it is recognised as the most likely source of major future disruption”



Our recent report, Navigating beyond coronavirus – how could sustainability evolve? proposed five hypotheses, and the first of these focused on climate change.

The report stated that:

“Climate change will remain a top priority, as it is recognised as the most likely source of major future disruption”

This hypothesis is focused on disruption to UK food & grocery supply chains, and of the whole UK food system.

The recently launched National Food Strategy Part One highlights this also, stating:

“Climate change is currently the biggest threat to food security, perhaps the most serious the world has ever seen. The problems it creates are likely to be disruptions of supply rather than demand. One worst-case scenario would be the failure of multiple harvests worldwide. If that happened, there might not be enough food to go around. This is a food security issue on a grand scale.”

It also recognises that “the global food system currently accounts for 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions” - based on IPCC Summary for Policy Makers,  2019 – Table SPM1.

The final element of context to consider comes from Preventing the Next Pandemic, a report from the UN Environment Programme, which emphasises the role of climate change and related issues such as agricultural intensification as disease drivers:

Seven human-mediated factors are most likely driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases:

  1. increasing human demand for animal protein
  2. unsustainable agricultural intensification
  3. increased use and exploitation of wildlife
  4. unsustainable utilization of natural resources accelerated by urbanization, land use change and extractive industries
  5. increased travel and transportation
  6. changes in food supply
  7. climate change

Making progress

Against this background, and with the UK now in a recession which is expected to be severe in terms of impact, what can we expect in terms of progress on climate change over in the three years.

There are several significant forces which will act as drivers of change for the UK food industry on climate change:

  1. UK presidency of Conference of the Parties 26 (or CoP 26), the global climate change summit coming to Glasgow in November 2021, is bringing significant focus on climate change from UK government and businesses and trade bodies and stakeholders. This is summarised by this quote from the CoP 26 homepage:
    1. “The world has woken up to the need to curb emissions and invest in climate resilience. But we all need to move faster down this path, with the UK continuing to lead by example with its net zero targets written into law.
      At COP26, we need governments, businesses, cities, the global scientific community and civil society to work together to accelerate the transformation of our economies, deal with the inevitable impacts of the climate change we have already created, and bend the curve on global emissions.”
  2. The UK Government’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is now legally binding. In December 2020, the Climate Change Committee will publish its 6th Carbon Budget, setting out the path for how the UK will achieve this. It will bring to life how net-zero may be distributed across different sectors, including agriculture and food, and how some sectors may need to be at absolute zero.
  3. Deforestation for land use conversion has become an iconic image associated with climate change, used in media and NGO circles. It does highlight one of the most significant challenges faced by the food industry in addressing climate change, namely how to manage and mitigate sourcing risks for soy - the world’s biggest food commodity.
    1. “Soy is one of the world’s most important crops, finding its way into animal feed, vegetable oil, even industrial chemicals. It is one of the most intensively grown: worldwide 1 in 10 acres of agricultural land is dedicated to soy. And it’s one of the most impactful: soy is the second biggest driver of deforestation worldwide (after beef) and the second biggest user of pesticides in the US (after corn)” – The Consumer Goods Forum
    2. Initiatives to improve supply chain transparency for soy will bring some of the risks associated with deforestation into greater clarity, and enable industry to manage the climate impacts of both soya production and the deforestation which it is associated with
  4. Discussions continue about the possibility of including a legislative environmental due diligence on deforestation in the UK’s Environment Bill, as it makes its way through parliament in 2020. Advocates suggest that such legislation would help the UK economy ‘build back better’ in its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while protecting forests around the world.
    1. “Mandatory due diligence would help establish deforestation-free finance and supply chains as standard business practice. It would make a bold and important statement – from the UK government and business alike – that they are no longer prepared to be complicit in fuelling the destruction of vital forests.” Client Earth
    2. The counter argument to legislation is that collaborative approaches across sectors and geographies and supply chains will be far more effective in driving change. Organisations such as the Retail Soy Group are leading work on such collaboration.


Climate change is here and present. According to Carbon Brief, “the first six months of 2020 were remarkably warm, either tied with or just a bit behind 2016, currently the record warmest year”.

The challenges presented by climate change will manifest themselves particularly in risks of supply chain disruption. Recognising these risks, and addressing them while also addressing the need to move towards net-zero emissions, present an immense opportunity for the UK food industry to move from the great reactive work during the Covid-19 pandemic to a position of long term climate resilience.