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2018 Heatwave: Evaluating the resilience of agri-food supply chains

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While the UK is not particularly noted for extreme weather, it is well known for the variability of its weather - from day to day, season to season, year to year and place to place. However, due to climate change, the UK is expected to experience more extreme events (e.g. heavy rainfall, flooding, heatwaves, drought etc.), which will put increasing pressure on food and drink companies to manage climate and weather related risks within their supply chains. This article reviews some of the key weather events in England this year and its impact on agri-food supply chains.

2018 Heatwave: Evaluating the resilience of agri-food supply chains

As the UK continues to swelter in above average conditions across much of the country, what have been the impacts on agri-food businesses? It seems a long time ago now (albeit only 3-4 months) when in March and April, much of England was hit by significant rainfall, classed by the Environment Agency as well above average across the majority of hydrological areas in England1. In addition, March exhibited two notable snow events, occurring at the start and in the middle of the month, gripping large parts of the country and causing widespread disruption to food supply chains as deliveries failed to meet their destinations.

It is fair to say that the winter was notably longer than recent years, and no sooner had spring started to kick-in, summer made an appearance shortly after. The Met Office has confirmed that it has already been the driest start to summer (1 June to 16 July) since modern records began 57 years ago (1961). On average the UK has seen just 47mm of rain during this period, and the average daily maximum temperature across the country for this period was 20.9°C — just below the 21°C recorded in 1976 (the hottest summer on record). Furthermore, Environment Agency monitoring sites show soil moisture deficits are larger than average for the time of year across all regions of England; river flows and groundwater levels are decreasing at many sites, and reservoir stocks are being heavily utilised, prompting water companies in the North West to announce a hosepipe ban, set to come into effect next month.

So what impacts have agricultural producers and supply chains been dealing with during this year’s extreme weather?

March

  • Food shortages - missed and failed milk collections due to blocked roads associated with the heavy snowfall led to widespread shortages of milk. Deliveries of produce and products struggled to get through the snow and ice, causing shortages in shops and distribution centres in some parts of the country. Panic-buying at some supermarkets further added to the problem as shelves were emptied as customers feared the worst.
  • Water shortages - burst pipes caused by the extreme weather led to water shortages for households and businesses across London and south east England, as well as some other areas.

June

  • Food shortages - the onset of warm weather caused the demand of some products (e.g. halloumi, barbeque food etc.) to outstrip supply, with shortages in some supermarkets as consumer demand peaked.
  • Reduced grass yields - grass yields started to be depleted in some parts (south and south east) as fields were scorched and dried out.
  • Increased fire risk - wildfires were prevalent across some heathlands and rough ground in some areas, largely started by arson.

July

  • Exceptionally high temperatures - a Level 3 Heatwave Action Alert was announced in England for the third time this year, with warnings for people and animals to stay out of the sun during peak times as temperatures soared above 30°C across much of southern and eastern England, reaching as high as 35°C in some parts.
  • Water shortages - producers in the East of England have been forced to halt irrigation due to water shortages. Some rivers have run completely dry (e.g. in Yorkshire Dales).
  • Increased fire risk - crop-fires have been an over-riding concern for many farmers, due to dry conditions. Thunderstorms in late July triggered wildfires on common ground also.
  • Reduced yields - harvesting has occurred earlier than average in some crops (e.g. oilseed rape) to try and manage moisture levels and early indications suggest cereal yields will be lower than average. A reduction in milk yields of up to 10% has been common in some areas due to livestock struggling in the hot conditions, although overall milk volumes remain abundant.
  • Reduced grass yields - grass yields are depleted across most of England as high temperatures and drought have scorched grass at field scale. Some farmers are resorting to using winter forage rations (as the grass has stopped growing), which may cause forage shortages in the winter.
  • Increased food waste - fruit (e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blackberries etc.) has been ripening in large quantities, much earlier than usual. Combined with labour shortages, fruit is not being picked quick enough and has led to tonnes of strawberries and raspberries being left to rot in the fields.

Foreseen impacts to come

  • Food shortages - some farmers have indicated that staple foods from bread to potatoes, onions, milk and meat may be in shorter supply than usual this year. Brassicas, such as broccoli and cabbage, are down in volume, and growers are having difficulty keeping some plants alive, indicating impending lettuce shortages etc.
  • Increased food prices -  food prices to consumers may have to rise, due to reduced yields and increased costs of imported raw materials.
  • Reduced straw yields -  shortages in straw for bedding are envisaged as straw length is reduced due to the impacts of the hot weather on the growth of wheat and barley.

These impacts demonstrate that resilience is being pushed to the limits for some agri-food businesses and supply chains. So what can businesses do to tackle climate and extreme weather threats given the uncertainty around what may or may not happen?

In essence there are two options. Firstly, the business as usual approach of ‘it may never happen’ (which would also involve ignoring the current extreme weather out the window), then in the event of disruption, putting all resources possible into recovering back to a normal state – if even possible, at significant cost. The second approach, which demonstrates good corporate responsibility, can deliver short and long-term economic benefits and ensures security of supply, is to anticipate the types of threat to agricultural businesses and along the supply chains, to assess the risks, take action where necessary and put recovery plans in place.

Information on many of the risks that climate change presents to the agricultural (and other) sector in the UK can be found in the 2017 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment. In addition, every five years the UK government sets out how it intends to manage the increasing risks (e.g. from flooding, drought, heat, sea-level rise and severe weather) in a National Adaptation Programme (NAP). Published this month, the second NAP for the period 2018-2023 sets out the actions that government and others will take to adapt to the challenges of climate change in the UK over the next few years.

To find out more about how ADAS can help your business identify and manage climate and extreme weather impacts; adapt and build resilience to extreme weather events; capitalise on opportunities associated with a changing climate; or help reduce carbon emissions through science-based targets, please contact Charles.Ffoulkes@adas.co.uk.

 

Information sources

AHDB (2018) 2018 GB Harvest Progress Results; BBC News (2018) Fruit 'left to rot' due to labour shortages; BBC News (2018) UK heatwave: Temperatures rise as alert continues; Committee on Climate Change (2018) The new National Adaptation Programme: Hit or miss? ; Defra (2017) UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017; Defra (2018) The National Adaptation Programme; Environment Agency (2018) Water situation: national monthly reports for England 2018; Farming UK (2018) Crops are 'being parched to the bone', NFU says; Food Manufacture (2018) Beast from the East causes disruption for food sector; Guardian (2018) British farmers fear fire as heatwave creates 'tinderbox'; Guardian (2018) Extreme weather could push UK food prices up this year, say farmers; Met Office (2018) Heat-health watch; Met Office (2018) The summer so far, official blog of the Met Office news team ; NFU (2018) Issues with greening and cross-compliance; and Telegraph (2018) Thousands of homes left without water.

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