Record Breaking Summer Heat: Food System Stories of Climate Action

Aug 18, 2022 | 0 comments

2022 has witnessed unprecedented levels of heat in the UK, with two official heat waves declared in the months of July and August. Temperatures soared so high on July 19th that the UK’s hottest temperature record was broken not once, but twice – at 39.1C (recorded in Charlwood, Surrey), and then later again the same day at 40.2C (recorded at Heathrow airport). This beat 2019’s previous record of 38.7C by almost two degrees. Local authorities delivered grim warnings of the risk to personal safety, describing the ‘exceptional risk’ of wildfires and droughts in parts of England and Wales as amber heat warnings were put into place.

Yet it’s not just the UK struggling in the stifling heat this summer. Temperatures much higher than previously seen or expected have been experienced all over Western Europe and the rest of the globe. In France, over 7000 hectares of land have been lost to significant wildfires caused by the harshest drought on record, scant rainfall in Germany has drained the water levels of the Rhine, whilst in Switzerland the army have been drafted in to airlift additional water to desperately thirsty livestock. This harsh, unwelcome reality undoubtedly comes as a stark warning to member nations of the UN’s Paris Agreement who are fighting to prevent a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels.

So how do these abnormally high temperatures affect our food system?

Heat waves disproportionally affect the most vulnerable in our society, as well as pets, livestock, wildlife, and the nature around us. Whilst societal attitudes towards the sunny weather here in the UK are indeed divided, there’s no doubt that this unnatural heat is having unprecedented effects on our food system visible from production to consumption.

On the immediate level – both crops and live animals suffer in the heat which can lead to food loss before produce even leaves the farm. Additionally, farms are at a much higher risk of fires starting, impacting crop and livestock health as well as disrupting day-to-day operations. In transporting and storing food, retailers struggle with food spoilage and high energy costs due to the shortened shelf life of fresh produce meanwhile fridge-freezers and chillers buckle under the heat. Shopping habits and food preferences can also change significantly (and often spontaneously) during a heatwave, with recent internet searches for Gazpacho up 739%, as well as heightened searches for ice cream, homemade lemonade, iced coffee/tea, salads, and barbeques. This change in consumption can lead to increased food waste for residual or ‘habitual’ food purchased under normal temperature conditions, as well as a risk to food safety if home-prepared food is cooked, stored, or reheated improperly.

On a longer-term level – the consequences are far more dramatic and irreversible, with farmers citing risks of food shortages later this year due to poor UK crop harvests, nature degradation and drought, biodiversity loss, and of course – the scary advancement towards a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees which the IPCC predicts will see more extreme heatwaves, oceans rising, and the destruction of 70- 90% percent of coral reefs. According to the UN Academic Impact (UNAI) initiative, food supply and food security will be severely threatened if little or no action is taken to address climate change”. These changes to climate are forecasted to cause numerous disruptions to global food production and crop stability, including a global rise in food prices, significant decline in crops such as wheat and maize, extreme risks to fresh and saltwater fishing, and shortages in adequate food supply to meet the growing population needs – just to name a few.

While the soaring temperatures are not something to be taken lightly – hope is not lost. We can take inspiration from the examples of other countries that have harnessed changing temperatures and climates to produce strategies and initiatives which not only bolster their food systems (climate adaptation) but actively work to fight global warming (climate mitigation). Let’s take a quick look at two stories of hope from Vanuatu and South Africa, both of which serve as excellent examples of the positive changes that can come from innovation and collaboration in the food and climate space. These two examples are taken from a recent report written by Tasting The Future for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, covering the climate crisis and food systems transformation.

In South Africa: cities, food forests and trees are crucial to combating climate change

As a region, Southern Africa is at high risk of droughts. The most recentdrought lasted from 2018 until early 2021.It was declared a national emergency inSouth Africa and neighbouring Namibia, with disruptions leading to delayed sowing periods for farmers which contributed to overall food insecurity. Food insecurity is also a well-established issue, with almost 20% of households facing inadequateor severely inadequate access to food in 2017 and 27% of children being classed as undernourished.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA), set up in 1990, works to take action against both food insecurity and climate change through tree planting. Working together with communities, they have planted over 4.8 million trees alongside 17,500 schools. Planting trees is beneficial in two ways as firstly, it combats climate change threats through absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and secondly, it aids food security by allowing communities to harvest nutrient-dense, delicious food on an ongoing basis. “By planting trees and supporting biodiverse food gardens in under-resourced urban areas we create healthier communities; reduce the heat island effect and build a more resilient fresh produce supply” – Robyn Hills, Head of Programmes (FTFA).

Today, FTFA plants 23,000 trees every year in urban or urban fringe areas. In addition to tree planting, FTFA establishes food gardens, offers hands-on permaculture workshops, and oversees advocacy and skills training. The organisation operates as a social enterprise and works predominantly with vulnerable, under-resourced groups, including women and residents in South Africa’s low-income townships.  FTFA has also gone on to influence several South African policies, including the National Schools Nutrition Programme, a government program that provides one nutritious meal per day to all learners in lower-income primary and secondary schools, and Johannesburg’s Urban Forestry Policy. This example highlights how a voluntary association initiative can grow to deliver impactful changes and action through mitigation – battling both climate change and food insecurity at once.

In Vanuatu: implementing village-level activities that build climate resilience whilst strengthening food systems

As a small island developing state, Vanuatu is ranked as the country most vulnerable to climate change. Both Vanuatu’s economy and its food systems are dependent on agriculture and fisheries, two sectors that have already been disrupted by the changing climate. The government-led Vanuatu Coastal Adaptation Project (VCAP), first launched in 2015, improves the resilience of coastal communities to climate change. It has successfully implemented several village-level activities building climate resilience, safeguarding food security, whilst also preserving livelihoods and local biodiversity.  Challe Waiwai, a community member involved in the project, described the success of the initiative: “Our marine protected area has helped us to protect our reef and increase the quantity of fish and shellfish. Our marine resources are more plentiful now and the coral reef seems healthier.” After a successful first phase, VCAP is now in its second phase called VCAP 2, which will run between 2021–2026.

The project focuses on 8 interventions based on adaptation strategies within Vanuatu’s National Adaptation Program for Action. These include measures on:

  • Agriculture and Food Security
  • Resilient crop species, including traditional varieties
  • Land-use planning and management
  • Water management policies and programs
  • Community-based marine resource management programs
  • Mainstream climate change into human and ecosystem infrastructure design and planning
  • Sustainable livestock farming and management
  • Developing Integrated Coastal Zone Management programs

The project considers customary land and water management practices, such as the periodical closure of marine areas to enhance fish catch. In addition, VCAP trains community members to oversee climate change adaptation activities, including those enhancing food and nutrition security. This includes planting climate-resilient crops and trees, monitoring fisheries, livestock rearing, and the supervision of community greenhouses for native fruit tree growth.

This example, set by VCAP demonstrates just how a national government-led initiative can effectively engage with its citizens to create locally relevant adaptation measures that tackle linked climate and food-security challenges.

With regards to the rapidly increasing effects of climate change – it’s clear there’s a real need for action, and fast. We should take inspiration from examples like Vanuatu and South Africa here in the UK, to continue developing more innovative ways of enhancing our food systems whilst reducing climate emissions. According to the IPCC, the extent of climate change impacts on individual regions will vary over time, and different societal and environmental systems will have varied abilities to mitigate or adapt to change, so we must remain vigilant and flexible towards whatever the future brings. Whilst there’s some solace in the fact that we still have time to mitigate and adapt our food production and ways of life to make the necessary climate improvements, climate anxiety exacerbated by recent rising temperatures has certainly left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. Yes, we can be optimistic and hope – but hope is nothing without collective action. Only in working together, through innovation and determination can we make the fundamental changes to ensure the future of our food systems, our people, and our planet.

Interested in reading more success stories of climate action from around the globe? Read the full Global Alliance for The Future of Food report, including 14 stories of hope, available here.

(This blog was compiled by Bella Boersma on behalf of Tasting the Future)

35000cookie-checkRecord Breaking Summer Heat: Food System Stories of Climate Action

Written By Tasting the Future

Mark Driscoll is a freelance sustainable food systems consultant focussing on food systems transformation initiatives. He works with businesses, funders and civil society organisations on a range of food systems projects. This includes research work, strategy & policy development, project management and media work. He is a passionate advocate and champion of food systems transformation which gives citizens access to healthy and nutritious foods within environmental limits.

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