Navigating Extreme Weather: How Food Wholesalers and Distributors Adapt to Climate Challenges

Helen Henshaw - CAO
29th May 2024

Let’s talk about something that affects every single one of us: the weather. Yep, you heard it right. Those clouds, raindrops, wind and sunny days aren’t just casual conversational topics. They have a massive impact on what ends up on our plates. And for what has like forever, the UK has been getting a serious drenching and it is causing quite a stir in the food industry. This blog aims to dissect the consequences of the prevailing wet weather on the UK’s food production and distribution networks, shedding light on the challenges confronted by food wholesalers and distributors.

The Soaked Soil: A Crisis Unfolds

The relentless rainfall engulfing the UK has plunged its agricultural sector into a state of crisis, with fields submerged and crops struggling to survive. Since last autumn, the inundation of water has rendered vast swathes of land unsuitable for cultivation, disrupting farming operations and threatening food production. This is not an isolated occurrence but rather part of an alarming trend, with the past 18 months witnessing historic levels of rainfall across the UK.

Data from the Met Office paints a grim picture, revealing that from October 2022 to March 2024, England endured an unprecedented 1,695.9mm of rain. Such figures represent the highest recorded amount for any 18-month period since records began in 1836, highlighting the severity of the situation. The impact on crop yields is particularly stark, with key staples like wheat, oilseed rape, and winter barley experiencing significant declines in production. As fields remain waterlogged and agricultural activities grind to a halt, the repercussions are felt throughout the food industry, foreshadowing potential price hikes and supply chain disruptions in the months ahead. In the face of the UK’s eighth wettest winter on record, urgent action is needed to bolster the resilience of the agricultural sector and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events on food production and distribution networks.

Climate Change’s Role in Food Insecurity

The current global food crisis highlights the urgent need to address the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss on food security. Although a global challenge, it is unfortunately really affecting our UK consumers.

But what is food security? Fundamentally, it is the assurance that individuals and communities have consistent access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food to meet their dietary needs. However, climate change and biodiversity loss exacerbate global food crises by disrupting agricultural production, altering weather patterns, and diminishing biodiversity. Thereby threatening food availability, accessibility, and affordability on a global scale.

From a governmental perspective, the 2021 ‘UK food security report’ outlines five principal factors shaping the nation’s food security landscape.

Unfortunately, the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss extends beyond these factors, affecting various stakeholders in the food industry, including food wholesalers and distributors. Fluctuations in global food availability and supply chain disruptions, directly affect their operations, leading to potential shortages, increased costs, and supply chain inefficiencies.

The industry’s significant contribution to food waste and greenhouse gas emissions further highlights the urgent need for more sustainable practices. Considering these challenges, the foodservice industry must embrace sustainability as a necessity rather than a luxury. We discuss this in more detail in a previous blog : Why the foodservice industry must embrace sustainability.

Extreme Weather Patterns: A Continuing Trend

According to the Met Office, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2023 report underscores the alarming reality: the surge in extreme weather events is leaving millions vulnerable to acute food insecurity and diminishing water security worldwide. In the UK, the impact of climate change is already palpable, with warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers becoming increasingly commonplace. These trends are projected to persist as our planet continues to warm, according to UK Climate Projections.

A warmer climate intensifies the water cycle, leading to heightened evaporation rates as the atmosphere can hold more moisture – approximately 7% more per 1°C of warming. While this may result in higher rainfall totals, it also brings a heightened risk of flooding. This was prevalent last year when with the fruit and veg crisis, when the UK had food shortages due to extreme rain and flooding in countries like Spain and Morocco.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of intense summer rainfall events is expected to rise, posing a significant threat to crops during crucial stages of the cropping cycle. As extreme weather patterns become a continuing trend, the need for adaptive strategies to mitigate their impact on food production and water resources grows ever more urgent.

According to the United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021, in 2020, the UK imported 46% of the food it consumed. That means that if our locally produced food is affected by the weather, we will be relying more on importing food, which could further increase prices that affects everyone. This is not just a local issue; it’s a global one. Countries all over the world are grappling with the effects of climate change on food production, leading to potential disruptions in both price and demand. How will these interconnected factors shape the future of our food supply chain?

Forecasting Price Hikes: Implications for Consumers

The forecast of price hikes looms ominously over consumers as we transition from a wet spring to the approaching summer months. Unusually wet weather patterns have the potential to trigger increases in the prices of essential staples such as bread, beer, and cooking oil. Analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) paints a dire picture, estimating significant reductions in the production of key crops like wheat, barley, oats, and oilseed rape. Compared to 2023, these reductions could amount to a staggering 4 million tonnes, representing a 17.5% decline. Also, when compared to the 2015-2023 average, the shortfall could surpass 5 million tonnes, equating to a daunting 21.2% decline.

For food wholesalers and distributors, the implications are far-reaching. With farmers grappling to establish their crops amidst one of the wettest winters on record, supply chain disruptions loom large.

As warmer, wetter winters become increasingly frequent, the challenges facing domestic food production intensify. In April, UK flour estimated a potential 40% decline in the milling wheat harvest, a critical component for bread production. Given that UK millers typically source around 80% of their wheat domestically, this shortfall is likely to reverberate throughout the supply chain, leading to price increases for consumers.

The impact of extreme weather events on food production underscores the urgent need for adaptive strategies and resilient supply chains to mitigate the challenges posed by climate change on food security and consumer welfare.

Ripple Effects: Beyond the Farm Gates

Wet weather woes aren’t limited to farms; they also dampen the start of spring for retailers and restaurants, with broader implications for food wholesalers and distributors. Cold, wet conditions, coupled with consumer caution amidst high interest rates and energy bills, have led to flat sales figures in March and April compared to last year. According to the British Retail Consortium and KPMG, sales dropped by 4% in the four weeks leading up to April’s end, with non-food sales hit hardest, down nearly 3%. Both in-store and online orders suffered declines, reflecting broader challenges for retailers amid economic uncertainty and unfavourable weather.

The impact is significant for food wholesalers and distributors. Reduced consumer spending and subdued demand translate into fewer orders and sales volumes, adding strain to already stretched supply chains. As retailers and restaurants grapple with dampened sales, wholesalers and distributors face the challenge of managing inventory levels and adjusting supply to meet fluctuating demand. The ripple effects of wet weather on consumer behaviour and business performance underscore the need for resilience and adaptability across the food industry supply chain to navigate through challenging economic and environmental conditions.

Tech Solutions for Resilience: Navigating Supply and Management

Food wholesalers and distributors face a pressing need for suitable technology to navigate the increasingly complex challenges of their industry. Amidst unpredictable weather patterns and supply chain disruptions, robust solutions are essential for ensuring continuity and resilience.

This is where Qnetex ERP shines. Specifically designed to meet the unique needs of the foodservice sector, Qnetex offers a centralised platform for managing sales, stock, warehouse operations, and deliveries. Its adaptability allows for tailored features that seamlessly integrate with existing workflows, ensuring optimal functionality.

And with its intuitive interface and per-user pricing model, Qnetex is accessible to businesses of all sizes, promoting scalability and affordability. Combined with mobile applications like Qstock, and Qdrop, it provides real-time visibility into supply chains and streamlines processes. Qnetex also enable food wholesalers and distributors to proactively manage disruptions and deliver superior service to customers, even in challenging conditions.

What does this mean for Food Wholesalers and Distributors?

In a world where the only constant seems to be change, the weather holds a significant sway over our daily lives, including what ends up on our plates. From relentless rainfall to soaring temperatures, the UK’s weather patterns have been sending ripples through the food industry, affecting everyone from farmers to consumers. But amidst these challenges, technology offers a glimmer of hope.

As food wholesalers and distributors navigate through the storm of supply chain disruptions and unpredictable weather, the need for robust solutions, such as an ERP with the specific challenges and processes of foodservice businesses in mind, has never been more apparent. In an industry where adaptability is key, leveraging technology to streamline operations and enhance resilience is essential. By embracing innovative tools and strategies, businesses can not only weather the storm but emerge stronger and more agile in the face of uncertainty. So, as we look to the future, let’s ask ourselves: in a world where the only certainty is change, how can we harness the power of technology to ensure a sustainable and resilient food supply chain for generations to come?