Sunak urged to focus on the big picture

As the prime minister brought together industry bigwigs to tackle food price inflation civil society leaders called for a holistic strategy to put the entire system on a more sustainable footing. Nick Hughes reports. 

The prime minister has hosted a summit of food and farming industry leaders to discuss ways to alleviate the surging cost of food and drink, drive growth and innovation, and improve sustainability.

Tuesday’s ‘farm to fork’ summit took place against a backdrop of fresh calls for the government to do more to ensure long-term food security and resilience amid fears it is side stepping critical issues. Civil society leaders called on Rishi Sunak to support greater distribution of profits across the food supply chain and provide help for low-income households to afford a nutritious diet as part of a transition to a resilient, sustainable food and farming system.

Sunak pledged to hold a food summit during last summer’s Conservative Party leadership campaign. The event comes at a time when official data shows the rate of inflation for food and non-alcoholic drinks has reached its highest rate in 45 years. Although there is evidence that inflationary pressures are starting to ease across the wider economy, food price inflation remains at consistently high levels compared with a year ago and reached a peak of 19.2% in March, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Announcing another hike in interest rates to 4.5% last week the governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, said that food price inflation is likely to fall back more slowly than previously expected despite a drop in the cost of wholesale food prices globally.

The government used the summit to announce a suite of new measures it claimed would help strengthen the long-term resilience and sustainability of the sector and provide greater stability for farmers. These included a new framework for trade negotiations to protect UK food and welfare standards; up to £30m of investment to drive forward the use of precision breeding technologies; new reviews into fairness in the horticulture and egg supply chains; and £1.6m in funding for the GREAT food and drink campaign.

UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said investment into the GREAT campaign was welcome news which, in addition to boosting exports, would help promote the UK as a tourist destination and give a boost to hospitality venues.

The prime minister has faced criticism however for excluding non-industry voices from his summit and for ignoring bigger, structural challenges facing the food system. NGOs responded by holding their own briefing on Monday, hosted by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, in which civil society leaders shared their priorities for the Sunak summit agenda.

Food Foundation executive director Anna Taylor noted how the impacts of food price inflation were not being felt equally across the UK population. The latest data from the charity’s own food price tracker, which measures weekly prices of a basket of food that forms part of a “reasonably-costed, adequately-nutritious diet”, showed the price of such a basket has increased by 24-26% since April 2022. Taylor described this as “an extremely serious situation” especially for those people on low incomes who spend a higher proportion of their household budget on food.

Food Foundation research shows that around 9 million adults and 4 million children are currently living in households that are struggling to put food on the table, according to Taylor. With future climate shocks set to make price inflation “a normal state of affairs” she argued that “we need to think really seriously about how we can cope with food price inflation better than we are now and strengthen both the resilience of our supply chains, but also the resilience of families”.

The government’s decision to ditch a previously promised horticulture strategy came in for particularly scathing criticism with Taylor describing it as an “extraordinary” U-turn given the circumstances. Both Taylor and Sustain head of sustainable farming Vicki Hird urged the government to reinstate the horticulture plan with a focus on making supply chains fairer for fresh produce farmers, supporting domestic production and ensuring fruit and vegetables are accessible and affordable for households.

The list of invitees to Sunak’s food summit was not made public although it was said to include the CEOs of major supermarkets as well as leaders of trade organisations. Hird suggested the list reflected the dominance of post-farmgate businesses in shaping food systems (and government policy). She called for a greater focus on supply chain fairness as she pointed to Sustain’s own research that shows farmers are getting less than 1% of the profits for their produce, with dairy and horticulture especially vulnerable to this market “dysfunction”.

Farmers, Hird said, need to be fairly rewarded for investing in the transition to nature and climate friendly farming, and reiterated the need for dedicated supply chain codes of practice. She also called for more infrastructure investment in supply chains that connect farmers directly with consumers, including the development of local food hubs and the rollout of dynamic procurement models whereby large public sector contracts are broken down into smaller chunks thereby allowing local producers to submit bids to supply specific products rather than the entire contract.

Picking up Hird’s point about access to markets, Martin Lines, UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said his farm had been diversifying cropping systems in order to insulate the business against volatile yields and commodity prices. For this approach to work in practice, Lines said it required a market shift towards “supply chains that are willing to accept a range of different products in small amounts” rather than the standardised, volume-focused chains that are currently dominant. Lines added that “the focus on continually reducing the cost of our food means our businesses are unsustainable, and that means there will be increasing problems” in future.

Speakers wouldn’t be drawn on naming specific food businesses they believe are supporting the transition to more resilient, sustainable farming and food systems (as opposed to those who are obstructing it) but Taylor said a requirement for businesses to publicly report on their impact – as is being thrashed out via the government’s food data transparency partnership – would “start to create the right incentives for companies to be moving, year-on-year, in the right direction” while at the same time shining a light on which companies are “ahead of the game” and which are the “laggards”.

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