Dr Caitlin Douglas, of King’s College, London, is an embedded researcher on a 12-month placement with Space4Climate, funded by the UK Climate Resilience Programme, in collaboration with the London Climate Change Partnership and the London Food Board.

In this introductory blog, Caitlin outlines the scope of her research. You can find out more about the Embedded Research scheme.

The connection between satellites and food security may not be immediately obvious but I will be working with Space4Climate as part of UKRI’s UK Climate Resilience Embedded Researcher Scheme until August 2021 to make this link more apparent.

In the UK we import about half of our food [1]; our system relies on global trade agreements and international labour. We use a ‘just-in-time’ food supply chain model, with produce and goods arriving immediately before they are needed. Very little, if any, stocks are held at any one time.[2] The vulnerabilities of this approach have already been shown by COVID-19.[3] Brexit may also be a major stressor on the system as about 40% of our food comes from the European Union.[2] Nearly 70% of the UK’s fresh vegetables come from the Netherlands & Spain and we also currently depend on EU labour to work our agricultural land.[2],[4] On top of the risks posed by COVID-19 and Brexit is the risk posed by climate change. Food insecurity has been identified as one of the UK’s main risks associated with climate change [1] yet there are concerns that the Government has underestimated it.[2],[5]

Our climate is changing rapidly and the impact this will have on our food is hard to overstate. Global shifts in climate and weather extremes will affect agricultural output. Some regions will benefit from changed growing climates, but many areas will suffer due to increased temperatures and changes in rainfall.[6] Changes to agricultural output both nationally and internationally will affect the availability of food in the UK in a multitude of direct and indirect ways. Existing supply routes cannot be assumed to be viable in the long-term and domestic farming would need to change substantially to pick-up the slack.[2] As the food supply chain is a major emitter of greenhouse gases (about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions arise from it),[7] our food system will need to change not just to adapt to a changing climate but also to help minimise its change.

If you are involved in the UK food supply chain and would be interested in an initial discussion of your climate-related exposure, or if you have a relevant EO-based product or service, please contact me at caitlin.douglas@kcl.ac.uk. I’m excited to be starting this fascinating and important work.

The current supply chain model is not future-ready. The points of the supply chain with the greatest vulnerability need be identified and the impact of any alterations understood to ensure that they do not jeopardise UK food security.

This is where Earth observation comes into play. For those who are not familiar, Earth observation refers to the use of remote sensing technologies such as sensors on satellites to study the Earth. Sensors can monitor environmental variables like air and sea temperatures, rainfall, soil moisture and vegetation cover, to name a few. The data can be processed in a variety of different ways to produce datasets or tools to support decision making – such as for monitoring, short-term prediction, long-term forecasting, planning and/or scenario testing.

Earth observation data bring several unique advantages when analysing complex global systems, such as the UK’s food supply chain by providing repeatable, consistent and high-quality assessment across national boundaries. The UK’s Earth observation community has strong and relevant technical capabilities to provide products and services to enhance our food security.

I am working with Space4Climate to help ‘bridge the gap’ between the potential users and the suppliers of this information. I will work with organisations at different points along the food supply chain to determine what they need to adequately assess their exposure to climate-related risk. I will then determine the current and potential future capabilities of the UK’s Earth observation community to address these user needs. Based on this information I will develop functional specifications for tool(s) which meet UK users’ climate risk assessment needs, using Earth observation data processed by UK suppliers.

References

  1. Global Food Security Website
  2. Lang 2020. Feeding Britain Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. Pelican
  3. Garnett et al. 2020 Vulnerability of the United Kingdom’s food supplychains exposed by COVID-19. Nature Food.
  4. Heffernan 2019 Testimony on Food Systems. UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Select Committee on ‘Our Planet, Our Health’
  5. Westminster Parliament 2019 Conclusions and recommendations. UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Select Committee on ‘Our Planet, Our Health’
  6. OECD 2016 Agriculture and Climate Change: Towards Sustainable, Productive and Climate-Friendly Agricultural Systems. OECD Meeting of Agriculture Ministers Background Note 4
  7. Shukla et al. 2019 Technical Summary In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems