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Climate change adding to health inequality

It's the Easter holidays, when households might have traditionally planned a Sunday feast of roast lamb, peas, roast potatoes, mint sauce, apple pie and custard. But it's a custom many families can only dream about.

With thousands of lambs dead in the fields and a drought in New Zealand so bad the browned earth can be seen from space, roast lamb is too pricy for many.

Peas, potatoes and apples will also be expensive. Waitrose managing director Mark Price has warned that last year's disastrous weather is working its way through the market causing big price increases. And that’s even before the impact of the current freezing weather is taken into account.

“In some commodities, the increases will be massive,” he says. “It’s bread, vegetables, all produce. The apple crop was down 20%-30%, so apple prices have to go up. You have only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

The price of 1 kg of Braeburn apples has risen by an average of 20% in the big supermarkets, from £1.62 at the beginning of 2012 to £1.95.

Meat prices are also soaring, because of high feed costs. And now farmers are having to bring early calves back indoors and buy in feed for animals that ought to be grazing spring grass.

Wheat yields in England are down by an average of 15% and in some places as high as 35%, according to the National Farmers Union. The world market price for wheat has risen by 29% compared to last year, after heat waves and drought hit the 2012 harvests in Russia and the US.

The UK government's chief scientist Professor Sir John Beddington, in his last week in the job, made clear that the extreme weather responsible for this growing food crisis is going to be a feature for many years to come. He warned:

The variation we are seeing in temperature or rainfall is double the rate of the average. That suggests that we are going to have more droughts, we are going to have more floods, we are going to have more sea surges and we are going to have more storms. These are the sort of changes that are going to affect us in quite a short timescale.

He explained that climate changes lag behind the CO2 emissions that cause them. In other words, it is the CO2 already in the atmosphere that is causing the current weather extremes.

But capitalist economies are emitting more CO2 than ever, and in the UK, the government has taken measures to boost fossil fuel burning. The situation is not going to get better any time soon.

And of course the impact of higher food prices is worst for poorest people. The price of healthy produce such as fruit and vegetables has risen by 34% in the last five years and that is nothing to what is coming later this year.

Climate change is now a key contributor to the growing health inequality in the UK and the government's response shows its flagrant hypocrisy. They continue to spend millions on TV adverts urging people to eat their "5-a-day" when their own statistics show that  the 10% of families on lowest incomes are actually reducing their spending on fruit and veg to save money.

We need to bring the energy and food corporates into a new and sustainable economic framework. With profit driven out of the system, we can start acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt climate change.

And we will need to start adapting to the changes that have already taken place; that means supporting farmers to sell their produce at a fair price to not-for-profit co-operatives. Then every family can have a healthy diet – and the occasional celebration!

Penny Cole
Environment editor
28 March 2013

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