Wet winter could cut UK food self sufficiency by about a tenth

As Prime Minister hosts food security summit new analysis finds extreme weather taking toll on UK self sufficiency, more imported flour likely in bread

Profile picture of George Smeeton

By George Smeeton


Last updated:

The UK’s ability to feed itself is set to be reduced by nearly a tenth, new analysis reveals, as farmers across the country have been hit by one of the wettest winters on record.

The analysis [1] from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), estimates that the projected reduction in key arable crops [2] as a result of lower crop area [3] and poor yields [4] will reduce UK self-sufficiency across all farming sectors by 8% when measured by volume [5], declining from an average of 86% between 2018 and 2022 to 78% this year. The UK could become dependent on foreign imports for around a third of its wheat, with wheat self-sufficiency estimated to decline from 92% in the same period to 68%.

With soils too waterlogged and many fields flooded for much of the winter, many farmers have not been able to establish crops. Climate scientists warn that warmer, wetter winters like the one we have just experienced are projected to become increasingly common as the world warms, raising concerns about the impact of climate change on UK food security.

The analysis comes as the Prime Minister hosts farmers and farming representatives at Downing Street for his ‘Farm to Fork Summit’.

Commenting, Tom Lancaster, land analyst at ECIU said, “In 2021, the Government [6] warned that climate change was the biggest medium to long term threat to our food security. This analysis suggests that it is the biggest risk now, not at some far off point in the future.

“Ultimately, we need to support our farmers to better cope with climate extremes, and Defra’s new green farming schemes will be crucial in this, building the resilience of our soils to floods and droughts, as well as planting trees and hedgerows that will trap carbon and slow flood waters.

“The UK depends on foreign imports for the foods we cannot grow here, so if we are to try to sustain the supply we have at the minute, we simply can’t grow everything we have now on British soil, so will also need to think about supporting farmers in other, often poorer and more climate vulnerable, countries.”

ECIU estimate that, compared to the average production between 2018 and 2022, [7] and assuming an overall level of consumer demand equivalent to the average in the same period, the reduction in wheat self-sufficiency could see imports rise from 1.9m tonnes to 4.8m tonnes. UK flour millers have warned [8] that the higher grade milling wheat harvest could be down by as much as 40%, giving rise to concerns about the price of bread and other baked goods.

Although oats and barley will remain largely stable due to higher anticipated areas of spring planting, self-sufficiency in oilseed rape is estimated to collapse to a historic low of 40%, again assuming demand remains in line with that seen between 2018 and 2022. This is down from 75% between 2018 and 2022.

With other crops that have suffered due to the wet weather not included in the analysis, such as field vegetables, potatoes and sugar beet, it is possible that an 8% reduction in headline self-sufficiency is an under-estimate.

Tom Lancaster, land analyst at ECIU said, “With its recent U-turns on climate policy, it’s possible the Government will try to downplay the threat climate change poses to our food security at this summit, but farmers consistently report the changing climate is one of if not the greatest threat to their harvests. The only viable long-term plan for farming is getting to net zero emissions when we are no longer making the problem ever worse.”

Last month, ECIU published analysis [9] that showed the harvest this year could be down by as much as a fifth compared to 2023 due to the wet winter, following two years in 2022 and 2023 when climate change added £361 to the average household food bill [10].

Notes to editors:

1. The analysis is available here: https://eciu.net/analysis/reports/2024/estimated-decline-in-headline-self-sufficiency-for-uk-food-production-due-to-the-projected-reduction-in-arable-crop-output-in-2024

2. All wheat, winter and spring barley, oats and oilseed rape. For the purposes of this analysis, sugar beet and potato production was assumed to remain constant with 2022. In reality, it is also likely to have declined.

3. Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) survey of farmers cropping plans https://ahdb.org.uk/cereals-oilseeds/early-bird-survey

4. The AHDB crop condition survey suggests crop condition this year is markedly worse than last year, suggesting lower per hectare yields as well as lower overall crops area https://ahdb.org.uk/cereals-oilseeds/crop-development-report

5. Defra publish self-sufficiency statistics by value and volume. The headline rate by value for 2022 was 60% for all food. In this analysis, we have looked at the Defra ‘food production to supply ratio by commodity’, which is measured by volume for the key sectors of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, sugar beet, potatoes, oilseed rape, pigs, cattle, eggs, cereals, poultry, milk and sheep. The aggregate self sufficiency by volume across these sectors in 2022 was 86%. It is higher than the 60% ratio for all foods by value, as the latter includes more non-indigenous foods, and measuring by value gives a very different outcome to measuring by volume.

6. United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021: Theme 2: UK Food Supply Sources https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021-theme-2-uk-food-supply-sources

7. 2022 is the latest year for which comprehensive data is available. Although some data is available for 2023, this is not true of all sectors (e.g., horticulture).

8. https://www.ukflourmillers.org/post/press-release-concern-over-supply-of-uk-breadmaking-wheat

9. https://eciu.net/analysis/reports/2024/analysis-of-uk-farm-cropping-plans-and-estimated-impact-of-the-wet-winter-on-production

10. https://eciu.net/media/press-releases/2023/families-hit-by-605-food-bill-as-extreme-weather-and-energy-crisis-bites

For more information or for interview requests:

George Smeeton, Head of Communications, ECIU, Tel: 07894 571 153, email: george.smeeton@eciu.net