NFU22: How secure is Britain’s food supply?

22 February 2022

An image taken at NFU Conference 2022 of a panel session chaired by NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts

© NFU/Simon Hadley

In this session chaired by NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts we heard from industry leaders about the potential impacts of future trade deals on British food and farming and the need to ensure our food self-sufficiency is increased, not weakened in years to come.

Trade and food availability are rising up the agenda with every week that goes by, panel chair Stuart Roberts told Conference. He added that in 1984 self-sufficiency in this country was 78%, but last year that figure was down to 60%.

The panel of industry experts were asked about their views on the issue.

Food security means homegrown

Members put the issue of food security in the UK on a global footing with the impacts of war in the grain-producing area of the Ukraine.

Horticulture board chair Ali Capper said: “Surely the most secure food is that that we produce in the UK?”

But Sam Lowe of Flint Global played down the link between self-sufficiency and food resilience.

He said: “My personal view is that self-sufficiency does not breed resilience, I think that resilience in the modern world means not only being able to produce food at home but having ease of access to other markets as well so that if a shock does hit you can get food into the country.”

Watch this session

He told delegates that during the Covid-19 crisis, the UK came within two weeks of running out of paracetamol because we import it from India. But the answer was not to start producing it in the UK, but to diversify your route of supply.

Karen Betts from the Food & Drink Federation said that farmers came through for the country during the pandemic and this shows how robust our food system is and how we pull together in a crisis. “Our industry are your biggest customers and we are proud to be customers of the UK farming industry.”

Trade deals

Trade deals were an area of concern for many members. NFU Trade Director Nick von Westenholz said that the current UK trade deals on the table were quite old-fashioned, while Mr Lowe said the government had missed an opportunity to include creative clauses to bring standards in line with our own.

“We are caught in a worrying inflationary environment, for us ingredient, logistics, packaging and labour has gone up, putting a real squeeze. There are difficult conversations going on between producers and retailers.”
Karen Betts, Food & Drink Federation. 

Olly Buston of Future Advocacy said that the UK public was totally behind farmers when it comes to food standards and his group was concerned about poverty and childhood obesity and the potential effects on public health.

“Trade deals may lead to a transformation in British diets that shifts us further from locally produced, healthier British fruit and veg to high fat, salt, sugar diets and there is some evidence from studies that have led to that.”

Global uncertainty

Global uncertainty affected much of the discussion with concerns raised over the potential of conflict in the Ukraine, artificial intelligence, inflation and ‘incoherent government policy’.

Ms Betts said: “We are caught in a worrying inflationary environment, for us ingredient, logistics, packaging and labour has gone up, putting a real squeeze. There are difficult conversations going on between producers and retailers.”

Mr von Westenholz said that he thought that there was ‘fundamental lack of coherence’ in policy making and farmers did not know what the government expected them to do – produce food or facilitate environmental schemes.

Mr Lowe said that he thought consolidation was the future of farming. “What in the long run does UK farming look like I would say consolidation, and part-time and niche producers with the middle hollowed out.

That’s how the UK remains competitive in a global market, that’s how you should compete with heavily subsidised European agriculture, that’s how it manages to compete with the rest of the world.”

Cyber threats

Member Joe Bramall asked if an increased dependence upon AI and robotics risk food security by inviting cyber attacks.

Ms Betts said: “New tech, automation used more and more and they are increasing our productivity and higher productivity raises wages. All companies are very careful about how they protect their links to their online presence, but this is not a reason not to do it. Robotics takes the back breaking work out of our industry and enables people to do more engaging work.”

Mr Lowe added: “This is a new risk but there were risks with the old system. If that is the direction of travel, automation will only be fully accessible to farmers or investors who have access to huge pools of capital, which does, to my mind, drive the move toward consolidation within the sector.”