Shoppers face a shortage of meat and even ready-made pizzas long before Christmas if the carbon dioxide crisis continues, supermarket bosses and producers warned on Monday.
The British Retail Consortium, which represents the major chains, said it expected to see food shortages by the end of the week, while pork suppliers warned of "farmageddon" within 10 days.
Pig farmers have threatened to slaughter animals on their land for render because of a growing backlog at abattoirs and processing plants due to the CO2 shortage.
The boss of Iceland said he expected supermarket shelves to begin to empty in the "coming days" as shortages of carbon dioxide, compounded by a lack of haulage drivers, hit the high street.
Richard Walker said: "This is no longer about whether or not Christmas will be OK – it's about keeping the wheels turning and the lights on so we can actually get to Christmas. This could become a problem over the coming days and weeks, so this is not an issue that's months away."
Carbon dioxide has a variety of critical uses in the food and drink industry, including putting fizz into beer, stunning and killing animals for meat, and in packaging to lengthen the shelf life of fresh foods.
But the UK has been hit by a shortage as a consequence of the closure of two fertiliser plants, which manufactured the gas in vast quantities as a by-product. The plants, which made about 60 per cent of the UK's carbon dioxide supply, ceased production after the spike in gas prices made them uneconomical to run.
The National Pig Association (NPA) said there were already 100,000 pigs awaiting slaughter at abattoirs due to a shortage of labour and now of carbon dioxide. If the backlog gets any bigger, pigs will have to be slaughtered on the farm and cannot then be put into the food chain.
Rob Mutimer, the NPA chairman, said: "If the situation doesn't change, it's going to spiral completely out of control. And the only endgame is farmers are going to end up slaughtering our livestock, not for the food chain but to put them into rendering, to dispose of carcasses like what happened in foot and mouth."
David Limpars, the NPA's technical operations director, said the industry was facing "farmageddon" within 10 working days, with fresh meat, including sausages and pork chops, the first to disappear from supermarket shelves.
A spokesman for the British Poultry Council said: "We hope we don't see any shortages, but if CO2 supplies become tighter we will see evidence of that in the next week.
"Christmas will be affected by this. We know CO2 demand increases across the board [in the run-up to Christmas], so that is quite an issue. We will see chicken and turkey shortages unless something dramatic happens."
Meanwhile, one supermarket chain said that products such as ready-made pizzas could be at risk if the problems were not resolved swiftly, as processed cheese is already being disrupted.
Separately, the owner of Tango, 7UP and Mountain Dew, which also makes and distributes Pepsi and Pepsi Max, is already looking to source additional gas from alternative suppliers.
Ian Wright CBE, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: "Important parts of the food and drink supply chain – already under significant pressure from the impacts of labour shortages – are now seriously compromised by disruptions in the supply of CO2.
"Two thirds of the CO2 volume that normally supplies the food and drink industry is now not available following the suspension of manufacturing by key producers."
Too much and too little at the same time – explaining the CO2 paradox
It seems ironic – we have both too much carbon dioxide and too little, at the same time, writes Emma Gatten, Environment Editor.
As the UN warns that CO2 emissions will continue to rise catastrophically in the next decade, we face possible food shortages because we can't get enough of the gas in our supply chain.
We think of CO2 as a negative byproduct of our fossil fuel consumption, but it has valuable uses in everyday life, from surgical procedures to prolonging the shelf life of meat and stunning animals for slaughter.
The difficulty for the UK is that 60 per cent of its supply comes from just two manufacturers who create food-grade CO2 during fertiliser manufacturer, a process that uses natural gas. As gas prices have risen, those fertiliser plants have shut down production, with knock-on effects for the meat industry, as medical uses are prioritised.
Supplies of carbon dioxide could now run out within five days, the meat industry has warned, which may mean British pork and poultry disappear from supermarket shelves. And yet the CO2 within our atmosphere continues to warm the planet – with disastrous results.
The green dilemma
The contradiction goes to the heart of the green dilemma – creating new sources of CO2 is much easier and cheaper than removing it from the atmosphere.
The problem is essentially one of chemistry. The fertiliser manufacturer process leads to the creation of pure CO2, perfect for food-grade uses which demand almost 100 per cent purity.
But in the air, CO2 is 420 parts per million – way above the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million – which makes capturing it and turning it into a usable gas for the food industry difficult. That makes the process much more expensive, roughly four times the cost of creating CO2 from fertiliser.
Carbon can also be captured from the emissions of fossil fuel combustion, such as coal plants or blue hydrogen production, but this technology does not yet exist at scale.
Major economies including the UK are now pouring billions into research and development, but estimated costs vary widely and it may be some time before either carbon removal or carbon capture are cost competitive.
However, as economies shift away from fossil fuels yet continue to require CO2 for specific uses, crunch points like the one we have seen this week are likely to increase if we do not diversify our sources.
‘Defossilise rather than decarbonise’
Recent events have underlined a growing recognition that we must "defossilise rather than decarbonise", says Prof Peter Styring of the UK Centre for Carbon Dioxide Utilisation at the University of Sheffield.
"The only equitable way to do this is through direct air capture because then you have a supply of CO2 without political or geographical boundaries. The technology is there, but are we willing to pay for it?" he said.
Richard Walker, the boss of Iceland, this week suggested that CO2 production was a "matter of national security" which "should be state-controlled".
Climeworks, a Swiss-based direct air capture company, says with the right incentives and carbon pricing, it could be cost-competitive with other sources of CO2 within 10 years. The company's technology is already being used to create the bubbles in sparkling water at a plant in Switzerland.
But at around £600 for a tonne of carbon right now, Christoph Beuttler, the company's head of climate policy, said it only works for companies "that can afford to have a strategic long-term perspective".
For the meat industry, the bottom line is "all price, price, price, and therefore they can't afford to have it".