The report, researched and written by Social Change UK, a change agency based in Lincoln, provides evidence of the current attitudes, beliefs and behaviours to climate change adaptation in over 40 small, medium and large food and drink businesses in the UK including Tesco, Warburtons, Aldi, United Biscuits, Weetabix and Greggs. Other companies less well known to the general public but supplying a substantial market share of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables into our supermarkets, were also interviewed.

Despite evidence in recent years of volatile weather events, a large number of food businesses did not believe there was any significant and immediate problem facing them with many businesses choosing to ‘wait and see’ when it comes to climate change rather than plan and adapt now. Some of the key findings from the research include:

  • Drivers: Competitors and customers are driving businesses to adapt to climate change. Businesses supplying to the major supermarkets are being ‘forced’ to consider and move to climate change activities to secure contracts. Businesses not supplying the major supermarkets are being left behind;
  • A ‘pay later” approach: Businesses tend to be reactionary instead of being proactive when it comes to managing climate risk.
  • Impact: Some businesses have been hit hard by recent weather events and have paid a significant financial price to get back to ‘business as usual’;
  • Sea level rise (and its effects): Businesses believe this is a low risk and something that will happen a long time into the future and affect only businesses near to the coast;
  • Commitment: Commitment to climate change is secured only when there are commercial and financial benefits attached;
  • Water: The cost of metered water was the main reason for businesses engaging in water saving activities;
  • Product availability: Very few companies were concerned about the future availability of raw products and felt that the issue affecting them short and long term was more cost rather than availability;
  • Diversification: Farmers and growers have stopped growing some crops because it is too risky. Many are diversifying in response to extreme weather with some ‘giving up’ on growing certain types of crops altogether. This could lead to a number of products not being grown in the UK in the long term.

The report also highlights evidence of food companies exploiting opportunities and considering ways to adapt to a changing climate including one farmer who is growing grapes for wine in Lincolnshire and United Biscuits who have introduced their ‘summer biscuit’ this year – a chocolate biscuit that will melt in your mouth and not your hands.

A number of barriers to adapting businesses to climate change were identified in the research including:

  • Cost and payback periods: Food businesses were reluctant to invest in climate change adaptation and new technologies with a long payback period. Most companies were only considering proposals with a financial return in less than three years.
  • The Tenant/landlord relationship: There is very little incentive for tenant farmers to invest in fixed assets if they do not own the land. This leaves a lot of farmers out in the cold when it comes to making advances in food production and growing.
  • Retail supermarkets: As well as being a driver for change, some of our larger supermarkets are also considered a barrier by some food businesses. Many farmers and growers claim that the contracts offered by the UK’s major supermarkets are short-term and only provide small profit margins for the supplier. This, as well as uncertainty around future contracts means that there is limited confidence or surplus capital to invest in medium/ long-term climate change mitigation and adaptation technologies and strategies.
  • The Government: Many businesses feel frustrated by recent policy changes and a lack of cross party commitment to specific and long term climate change policies. This leads to instability for businesses and hinders any possible investment by those wishing to tackle climate change within their company.

Kelly Evans, Director at Social Change UK (and author of the report) said:

“Collectively, the food production, distribution and retail industries are vital to the nation’s economy and for the provision of our basic subsistence. These industries contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but they are also vulnerable to its effects; with growers particularly at risk. Adaptation to climate change is necessary for businesses to survive and grow but also to protect the food chain and the nation’s food security today and in the future. 

The industry really needs to come together with the government and other bodies to look now at how to support food businesses to ‘future proof’ the industry. We cannot just leave this important issue of food security and climate change to a later date. You only have to look out of the window to see the effects of a volatile weather system. We identified real barriers for businesses in this research that need to be addressed – including a long-term vision and cross party government support. This should not just be corporate social responsibility. This should be collective social responsibility.”

The full report, including recommendations is available on the Defra website: