Environment

Here are the supermarket staples at risk from climate change

As food shortages sweep the nation, new data reveals only two thirds of people are aware that climate change could affect their weekly shop

woman standing in front of empty shelves at the endangered aisle pop up

By 2050, all of our supermarket staples could disappear. Image: Ian photo/Vindhi De Silva

Climate change is affecting everyone, everywhere. From severe floods and tropical storms to droughts and heatwaves, extreme weather is happening all over the world and the consequences are stark.

Not only do these extreme weather events cause damage to property and infrastructure, as well as loss of life, there is something else being impacted that many people are only now having to consider: groceries.

Right now, we are seeing shortages of fruit and vegetables in many supermarkets across the UK due to poor weather conditions where those items are grown, prompting retailers to set limits on how many tomatoes or cucumbers people can buy.

We had become used to walking into a supermarket and seeing products from all over the world, albeit imported at huge cost to the planet, but available year-round. 

But these shortages are likely to become more common in the near future. And not enough is being done to stop it.

That is why the Fairtrade Foundation have organised a pop-up shop in Shoreditch, called the Endangered Aisle. The charity’s goal is to highlight what a supermarket might look like in 2050, if climate change goes unchecked and people don’t change their habits.

The picture painted by the Endangered Aisle is undeniably bleak: the shelves are barren and the food we love and in some cases need to survive won’t be available anywhere.

The charity warns that products that require growing, including bananas, cocoa, coffee, tea, and nuts, are going to disappear within our lifetimes if people do not take further steps to combat adverse weather induced by climate change.

Empty shelves missing supermarket staples in Fairtrade's Endangered Aisle store
Image: Michele Theil

Consumer research commissioned by Fairtrade and conducted by 3Gem Research & Insights found 60 per cent of British people would be “devastated, annoyed, or upset” if chocolate was no longer available in the UK, while 54 per cent said they felt the same about losing coffee or bananas.

Whether it is fresh, canned, or frozen, almost everything you buy will be at risk of being devastated by the climate crisis.

People are already getting used to walking into the supermarket and seeing half-empty shelves due to supply chain issues caused by Brexit and Covid-19 in recent years. And in the last month supermarkets have found it hard to get produce simply because there isn’t enough supply. 

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Sales of some fruit and vegetables have been limited by major supermarkets, including Tesco, Asda, Aldi, and Morrisons.

The government says it is largely due to bad weather in Europe and Africa, while high electricity prices are impacting produce grown in greenhouses in the UK and in Europe.

In the winter, the UK usually imports 95 per cent of its tomatoes and 90 per cent of its lettuces from Spain and North Africa, according to the British Retail Consortium.

But areas in Southern Spain have had unusually cold weather while produce in Morocco has been impacted by flooding.

Crop fields in Italy
Extreme heat and cold weather have severely impacted crops across Europe in the past year. Image: Gaetano Cessati/Unsplash

“Dramatic climate change events have tripled in recent years so this has been going on for sometime. But, we are able to make changes now. We can act now before we see that bleak future that is on display at the Endangered Aisle,” Jackie Marshall, head of brand and marketing at Fairtrade Foundation told The Big Issue.

Not everyone is aware of the scale of the problem, Marshall said, citing statistics from Fairtrade that show only 63 per cent of people were aware climate change could affect their weekly shop, while only 38 per cent of people are making changes to limit their impact on the planet.

British scientists recently said Second World War-style rationing might be a solution to overconsumption of food (30 per cent of food is wasted globally each year) and a potential solution to cutting carbon emissions despite being an “unpalatable” option. But people may have no choice but to ration their food if the food is not available at all.

Marshall said things can get better, if we “act now”. 

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She said: “We don’t believe that it has to be the case that we will have to learn to live without certain products. The programmes that we have in place are already making a difference, and people can contribute to that to safeguard their supermarket staples.

“By buying Fairtrade products, you know that the farmers working on those products have training and special funds that they can put into programs to tackle climate change.”

“We are able to implement projects to help producers to adapt climate change, such as implementation of sustainable agriculture systems and strategies to manage soil and prevent erosion,” Faith Muthoni from Fairtrade Africa told The Big Issue.

Fairtrade is most often associated with ethical labour practices and ensuring that farmers are paid fairly for their work, but Marshall said the charity is also working in the field of climate change.

Fairtrade Endangered Aisle store front in Shoreditch
The Endangered Aisle is in Shoreditch until Thursday March 2. Image: Fairtrade

“The Fairtrade Foundation has a major focus on the climate,” Muthoni added, explaining that the 1.3 million farmers the charity works with are “taught how to assess environmental risk and to prepare action plans and enable a shift to sustainable agriculture and climate-focused systems” using the money received from the sale of Fairtrade products.

In addition to spreading awareness of the potential effects of climate change on our supermarket staples, the Endangered Aisle is aiming to show people that there are a lot of Fairtrade products out there – more than people know.

Once you get past the barren shelves, which are designed to shock people as they walk in and are confronted by the impact of the climate crisis, there are a number of products, from wine and flowers to lip balm and t-shirts as well as coffee and chocolate, that have the Fairtrade logo printed on them.

fairtrade products
There are Fairtrade products to suit every budget. Image: Michele Theil

Marshall stressed that the Endangered Aisle will enable people to learn more about Fairtrade, and dispel the misconception that Fairtrade products are not freely available or are more expensive than non-Fairtrade products.

She said: “Fair trade is sold in the likes of Asda, Lidl, Aldi, and even Greggs. We have opportunities for every kind of budget and there are Fair Trade products for everyone.”

This is important during a cost of living crisis, especially as Fairtrade consumer research found that 43 per cent of people said that their energy costs are a bigger concern than climate change.

“Even with a cost of living crisis, people can make that change to buy Fairtrade and protect the future of our planet,” Marshall added.

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