Will the first UK food security report in a decade gather dust or be used to drive serious change in the face of looming sustainability challenges, asks Nick Hughes?
How food secure is the UK? It’s a question that has rarely troubled the UK government during the past decade. For the most part ministers have been happy to leave issues of food supply to businesses and the market. But the shock of the coronavirus pandemic, combined with pressure from MPs, peers and campaigners, has forced a rethink.
In December, as required at least every three years under the new Agriculture Act, the UK government produced its first comprehensive review of the UK’s food security since 2010, a period during which “the food security landscape has changed significantly” according to the UK Food Security Report (UKFSR) authors.
Produced by Defra officials, the UKFSR is not a policy document, nor is it a foretaste of future government policy. Its purpose is to arm policy makers with the information they need to maintain the UK’s future food security.
So what does it conclude and what does it all mean for food businesses?
At over 300 pages in length the UKFSR is a hefty tome which considers the question of the UK’s food security through the lens of five themes: global food availability; UK food supply; supply chain resilience; household-level food security; and food safety and consumer confidence.
At a macro level, global food supply and availability has improved since 2010, which the report states is a “positive sign for the UK’s overall food security”. It also notes that while covid-19 has caused some disruption to supply chains, global trade in products is expected to recover and continue growing in the long term.
So far so positive. But this is not an analysis characterised by complacency. Significantly for businesses involved at all stages of the food supply chain, the report concludes that climate change and other environmental pressures like biodiversity loss and overexploitation of natural capital resources, including fish stocks and water resources, “threaten the stability and long-term sustainability of global food production”. These factors, along with others like soil degradation, also represent “the biggest medium to long term risk” to the UK’s own domestic production of food.
The warning is timely given it coincides with the biggest shake-up of UK agricultural policy in a generation. Earlier this month at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), environment secretary George Eustice set out the government’s latest proposals for how it plans to transform the sustainability of farming in England (agriculture is a devolved issue) via a new subsidy regime that rewards farmers for the provision of public goods.
A local nature recovery scheme will pay farmers for locally-targeted actions such as creating wildlife habitats, planting trees or restoring peat and wetland areas. Meanwhile, a new landscape recovery scheme will support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.
The two schemes join the previously announced sustainable farming incentive, through which farmers will be paid to produce public goods such as water quality, biodiversity, animal health and welfare and climate change mitigation, alongside food production.
The schemes have received a cautious welcome from farming groups and NGOs, although concerns have been raised by The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, and RSPB over a lack of detail on how the schemes will work in practice and whether they are sufficient to meet government targets for nature recovery.
There are also fears that, rather than encourage a more integrated, sustainable approach to land management across the entire country, the new incentives risk creating a polarisation – some landscapes will be rewilded while production on other farmland will be further intensified to maintain current levels of food production. In a recent blog, Sustain's head of farming Vicki Hird wrote: “We should let nature sing everywhere and be investing in the new agroecological farming and supply chains needed to support this transition. We definitely should not be pushing farmers out of business and importing more to replace their food if we inappropriately re-wild good farmland here.”
Addressing the OFC, national food strategy author Henry Dimbleby said that in reality a mix of so-called “land sharing” and “land sparing” would be needed to put domestic agriculture on a sustainable footing. He also warned that progress would be undermined “if we don’t get trade right”, citing recent trade deals with Australia and New Zealand which do not require importers to meet baseline UK standards as an example of how environmental harms can be exported to other countries.
The UK has long relied on imported food to supplement domestic production with almost half (46%) of food consumed in the UK currently coming from overseas, according to the UKFSR. In his book Feeding Britain, food policy expert Tim Lang described this reliance on others to feed us as “immoral and short-sighted” when there is “so much more that could be grown here”.
The UKSFR notes that sourcing food from global markets contributes to the UK’s food resilience by spreading the risk. However it also acknowledges that an over-reliance on global trade can expose food supplies to logistical, political and production-related disruption.
It’s especially significant in the context of Brexit that trade with Europe makes up over two thirds (67.8% in 2020) of UK food imports. Although the report states it is “too early to say what effect leaving the EU might have on that trade”, data on the flow of food going the other way suggests there is cause for concern. In December, the Food and Drink Federation reported that UK exports of food and drink fell £2.7bn (-15.9%) in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels largely due to a drop in sales to the EU of £2.4bn (-23.7%) resulting from new barriers to trade.
New customs controls on UK imports from the EU only came into force on January 1st this year, with physical checks due to follow in July, but already trade bodies are warning of disruption in the supply of certain products, including some mainstays of the foodservice trade. Cold Chain Federation chief executive Shane Brennan told Sky Newsearlier this month that trade in high frequency, low volume goods like deli meats and cheeses would become “incredibly difficult” under the new regime.
Brexit is also having an impact on the availability of labour – another risk to future food security identified in the UKFSR which states that “securing sufficient labour at appropriate skill levels presents additional issues for the agriculture and food sectors”. Worker shortages were a constant threat to food supply chains in 2021. ONS data for June to August showed accommodation and foodservice as the sector with the highest ratio of vacancies to employee jobs. At the other end of the supply chain, thousands of healthy pigs have been culled and incinerated in the UK since the summer due to a shortage of butchers and vets in abattoirs.
And what of people’s ability to afford and access sufficient healthy and nutritious food? That household-level food security is included in the report at all represents a victory for campaigners. The Food Foundation worked with MPs and peers in the House of Lords to put pressure on the government to consider household food insecurity as a key metric for the report. In the event, the data shows that 92% of households regarded themselves as being food secure in the financial year 2019 to 2020, a figure that drops to just 57% for those families receiving universal credit. England and Wales have also seen an increase in eligibility for free school meals since 2018 caused in part by the impact of the pandemic on households’ financial situation. With energy prices set to surge later this year household spending on food – which is a discretionary rather than fixed cost – risks getting squeezed even further.
The fact that food security is back on the political agenda after a decade in the wilderness must be considered a positive. But there is no room for complacency. The government’s own analysis shows the risks to our future supply of food are many and varied and liable to impact business continuity. Will we now get the “serious review of the food system” that Lang wrote in Feeding Britain is “long overdue”. Or will the government consider the report a case of ‘job done’ on food security until the next instalment is due in 2024?