Food shortages

Sue Nethercott
10 min readMay 1, 2024


Are you expecting food shortages? I am.

Photo of my strawberries and parsley
My strawberries and parsley

Those of us in the West are unlikely to experience famine and true hunger, absent being bombed back to the stone age like Gaza, but we are likely to see more and more gaps in shelves and favourite foods priced out of our reach.

Food availability and tastes change over time, often affected by changes in availability. Oysters used to be a basic staple, for example. There seems to be a real chance that chocolate will become an expensive luxury. Bananas may be off the menu altogether.

When I was a child growing up on Exmoor we were lucky enough to eat well without the benefit of a supermarket. We lived in such a remote area that the butcher and grocer came round in vans every couple of weeks. There was no factory farming, so chicken was a luxury. We got one once a year direct from the farmer, for Christmas — and ordered next year’s when this year’s was delivered.

We had the space to supplement deliveries by growing our own food. I well remember being tasked with weeding, earning 3d per bucket of dandelion flowers, and bending over to be a support for my mother who had a bad back as she worked her way along the rows. And if not every pea that was shelled or raspberry that was picked made its way into the bowl, I’m not telling. We could also go out picking fruit and nuts from hedgerows — blackberries, wild strawberries, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and all.

When I left home it was to find work in cities, and I was able to find all the food I wanted in supermarkets. But over the years I have come to recognise the fragility of our food supply.

By downsizing my house drastically, I was able to buy one with enough land to grow some vegetables and still have plenty left over for the wildlife. Parts of the garden are overrun with blackberries but I don’t mind — there’s enough fruit for me and the birds. Squirrels beat me to the hazelnuts but my teeth aren’t up to eating nuts any more anyway.

There are many reasons why a particular food may be in short supply:

  • extreme weather/climate change
  • war
  • greed
  • nuclear fallout
  • pollution
  • disease
  • supply chain disruption
  • food deserts
  • human error

Sometimes it is a combination of factors leading to shortages.

Extreme weather/climate change

Thanks to climate change, the weather has become more extreme (just ask Dubai!). This year it has led to record rainfall in the UK, too, which has led to mature crops rotting in the fields and farmers unable to sow more crops and a high mortality rate for lambs, leading to food shortages in the UK and around the globe. Similar wet weather in Europe and drought further afield will mean less food to import and higher prices.

Untimely frosts can wipe out a fruit or nut harvest, for example almonds in Spain, whereas in California it is drought that is threatening crops.

Climate change has also hit chocolate — perhaps not an essential food from a nutrition point of view, but there are many people who would not be happy to do without.

Climate change is enabling some pests and diseases to extend their ranges, for example mountain pine beetles killing whitebark pine in and around Yellowstone National Park and pests endemic in Europe beginning to be able to overwinter in Britain. Europe has already suffered from this.

In the past nature has managed to cope with gradual changes in climate; it is only the sudden acceleration which leads to mass extinctions — natural in the past but man-made now. Similarly, the free market may be able to cope with some interruptions, but now there are many it does not cope with well.


There are many countries around the world where people are starving because of war. The one getting the most publicity at the moment is Gaza, which is getting particular attention in America because it is American bombs that are being dropped. Ukraine, too, is suffering. And if Putin wins there, the war will spread, as the NATO Secretary-General has warned. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev says that Poland is in Russia’s sights.

The war in Ukraine, which is a large agricultural country and a major grain producer, has affected world grain supplies by varying amounts as the war progressed.

Putin is even threatening Britain.


Those of us with governments who did not act (e.g. the UK) saw increases in food prices well above those needed to compensate for shortages of fuel and grain due to the war in Ukraine. This led to a huge rise in people turning to food banks in the UK. This is affecting many children.

Supermarkets are using their clout to pay farmers as little as possible, and the free market is bringing unfair competition, making farming of some foods uneconomic. Farmers in Britain and across Europe are protesting. The Tory government is making trade deals that do not protect our farmers, for example with Australia.

Nuclear fallout

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 in Ukraine led to nuclear fallout over much of Europe, including Wales. Farmers were banned from selling their produce. Now, once again in Ukraine, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant is at high risk in the war.

If Putin decides to restart the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, he is courting disaster.

But the problem is not confined to Ukraine and the countries downwind of it — there are nuclear plants all around the world, and a nuclear accident or terrorist attack (or in some cases a tsunami) could happen at any time.


Oil and chemical spills can devastate crops or fishing locally. Major floods can spread everyday pollution over wide areas.


As a result of our sending produce and other items long distances around the world, we have spread plant pests and diseases with them. Invasive species can wreak devastation on crops far from their home range. Dutch Elm disease (imported from Canada) has devastated British elms, for example. There are many invasive species in America, too.

Bird flu has killed millions of chickens and has now spread to cattle in the US. It has caused a lot of culling and quarantining of domestic fowl in the UK, but at the moment is in abeyance, despite still being present in wild birds. It is a big risk, though.

Zoonotic diseases are a major concern as they can spring up at any time, as viruses jump from animal to animal. A dolphin recently got bird flu.

Foot-and-mouth disease (hoof-and-mouth disease) has devastated herds of cattle in the UK and US from time to time. I well remember the last outbreak here in the UK — movement was very restricted and farmers had to cull many animals and take major precautions. The pyres of culled cattle were awful to see.

Supply chain disruption

The embrace of the free market has led to some very long supply chains and these are vulnerable in many ways. The penny-pinching of just-in-time, saving warehousing and inventory costs, has meant that shortages are soon felt if the supply chain breaks down.

COVID devastated supply chains. An (unnecessary?) attempt to keep meat packing plants going in the US led to excess deaths — too high a cost.

As noted above, wars disrupt supply chains, whether of food, or the fuel, fertiliser or machinery needed to produce food. Attacks in the Red Sea are delaying goods and pushing up costs and risking a shortage of Tetley tea!

The Strait of Hormuz is another choke point. Accidents like a ship hitting a bridge in Baltimore can close important ports. Earthquakes and a volcanic eruption have affected the fishing industry of Grindavik, Iceland.

Egypt’s Suez Canal was blocked by a huge container ship. Cargo traffic through the Panama Canal has been slowed by drought lowering the water level. Marine life and Panama’s supplies of drinking water have been sacrificed to keep it open.

Strikes — which may have been caused by food shortages or steeply rising food prices — can disrupt at any point in the chain. Protests such as Arab Spring can spread and escalate into war.

Food deserts

Many people in the UK and the US live in food deserts — places where access to fresh, healthy produce is very limited and expensive.

Human error

Political or corporate choices made for the best or worst of reasons may result in shortages. Monoculture in agriculture may be more ‘efficient’ but leaves us very vulnerable. Wide use of pesticides is killing the insects we need to pollinate our crops. We are also losing the birds that eat pests. Irrigation and other practices can leave soil too salty for use. Ripping out hedgerows, ploughing and other practices can lead to topsoil being washed away and low-lying farmland being flooded more often. Ripping out trees led to the Dust Bowl in America. The hedges we have ripped out provided shelter, shade and supplemental food for livestock.

Politicians are keen to save money for tax cuts by ending free school meals, leaving some children less well fed. The quality and quantity of school meals is often poor. Soldiers are often recruited from the poor, so if they have not eaten well as children, they are less likely to be fit to serve.

Brexit has interfered with trade between Britain and Europe, our nearest neighbour. It has also led to a shortage of foreign agriculture workers to harvest our crops.

Wars lead to farmland being polluted and made dangerous by landmines and other unexploded weaponry.

We often plant unsuitable crops in chase of profit, for example, maize and almonds.

Cost-cutting by feeding animal remains to other animals has resulted in BSE (mad cow disease), which has spread to humans as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease(vCJD) (hold that beefburger!) and to deer (eating venison has killed human hunters) and other animals. This results in culls of cattle.

There are those who are adamant that there should not be solar farms, saying (and in some cases believing) that it is a poor use of agricultural land. But, done properly, solar panels can provide beneficial shade for crops and livestock alike. Sowing flowers for insects underneath them benefits pollinators which benefit crops. So a blanket ban is an error.

Big Ag pumps antibiotics into livestock, increasing antibiotic resistance which is a threat to us all.

What we can do

As I have written before, food is fundamental to life. During World Wars One & Two people dug victory gardens, but unless you are expecting a major war in your area it is not necessary to go that far. In fact, you do not even need to dig a garden at all! But most of us could benefit from buying storable food ahead of time if shortages are predicted (as after British flooding, above, for example) or growing a little food to supplement our diets nutritionally or to fill temporary gaps or to reduce costs. And sometimes it can be free!

Try out different foods, so that if something you would normally be eating is unavailable, you have a substitute waiting in the wings.

There are many articles and videos on the web telling how to take the roots from store-bought produce and propagate them using nothing more than a glass of water, and no more space than a sunny windowsill. Here, for example. Some will need putting into soil or compost later, but some can stay where they are. They can be used to add interest and/or nutritional value to meals made of poor foods, or when your favourite foods are not available. I have some celery growing at the moment; it is not worth buying it for one unless you eat a lot of it — except to start your own.

You can buy packets of nutritious seeds or cress for sprouting — this can be done without soil. With soil you can grow peas and other plants all year round indoors and harvest their shoots to put on salads. Rather than buying pea seeds from garden centres for this, buy dried peas from supermarkets.

If you have a small garden, or room and the money for a few pots of compost, there are more ways to save money and add interest. Many herbs can be grown in pots, indoors or out. If you buy a pot of your favourite herb from the supermarket, quickly transplant some into separate pots to grow on. But beware — I recently got 51 parsley plants from one supermarket pot!

If you don’t have a garden, you may be able to get an allotment, but there are long waiting times in some areas. Alternatively, you may be able to join a community garden scheme.

If you have a large enough garden, and some resources, it may be possible to grow most if not all of your food yourself. Full details in “The Self-Sufficiency Garden” (US) (UK) by Huw Richards and Sam Cooper. They have lots of videos on Youtube, too.

Here in the UK we are experiencing shortages in medicines, and in America many people have long been unable to afford them. While they can’t replace complex modern drugs, plants can be grown to provide some drugs. After all, many drugs we use today originated from plants (another reason for not destroying habitats where new drugs may be waiting to be discovered). Ethnobotanist James Wong’s book “Grow Your Own Drugs” (UK) (US) describes how.

Big Ag has bought out many farmers in the US. Supermarkets are squeezing every last penny from farmers in the UK and cancel orders for the food that farmers have grown for them. Where possible, shun them and buy direct from the farm. Visit your local farmer’s market if there is one. Food is so important to me (despite not being a gourmand) that I am willing (and fortunately able) to buy from a veg box scheme that grows organically and sustainably and treats its suppliers well. We need to support farmers’ demands for fairer treatment, or they will go out of business, reducing our choice and food security, and increasing our costs.

Farmers also need support to switch to more sustainable crops and practices, or it will be worse for us all.

Food security is national security. Distributed production is good for security against enemies and against local weather variation, so make sure your politicians are aware of this. Big Ag lobbyists are telling them that long supply chains are good. Big Ag itself is also a threat. We may have an illusion of choice, but you only have to look at the number of brands mentioned in some food recalls (US) (UK) to realise just how few suppliers there actually are and what risks mass-produced food can pose.

So, there are things large and small that we can do to reduce the effect of shortages on ourselves and our country. Business as usual will not cut it and will leave many, particularly the poorest, worse off food-wise.



Sue Nethercott

Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.