It’s only been in recent years that the concept of food security has become a talking point in the Western world.
The availability of food and individuals’ ability to access it was taken for granted in developed countries.
However, a number of factors, the most recent being Covid-19, have undermined those old certainties and now governments and experts are examining supply chains to determine just how vulnerable we are to future shocks.
Across markets, the pandemic – which disrupted production as workers became ill and led to soaring demand for groceries from consumers suffering from the virus, staying indoors more often and working from home – resulted in gaps on supermarket shelves at times.
In the UK, the situation was exacerbated by the impact of Brexit, which has led to delays at border points – most prominently in Northern Ireland – as food manufacturers wrestle with the additional paperwork and checks linked to no longer being in a single market (or in the case of Northern Ireland it to all intents and purposes remaining in one). Some supermarkets in the province have struggled to fill their shelves as a result.
High energy prices and inflation elsewhere in the supply chain, meanwhile, have led to food prices going up,
Sue Davies, head of consumer rights and food policy at consumer organisation Which? said in a recent survey it came out that 58% of people were impacted by rising food prices. “Some people are really struggling,” she said.
Meanwhile, a shortage of labour in the freight industry and in meat processing plants has impacted the delivery of food while a shortage of CO2 in the autumn as a result of plant closures because of high gas prices also brought home how vulnerable the country’s food industry – which uses carbon dioxide in the slaughtering process and for bagging and preserving chilled food – can be to such factors.
The UK’s National Food Strategy
Last July, the second part of the UK government-commissioned National Food Strategy report was published.
Amongst other things, its author – Henry Dimbleby, founder of the Leon food chain – made a clear link between food security and sustainability. He warned the country’s eating habits are destroying the environment, which in turn threatens food security. The food we eat accounts for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and is the leading cause of biodiversity destruction, his report said.
In December, the Government published its Food Security Report 2021, which examined the issue of whether the UK is food secure across five themes – global food availability, UK food supply sources, supply chain resilience, food security at the household level and food safety and consumer confidence.
Among its key messages was that the UK is resilient to potential shocks in the food supply chain.
Nevertheless, it was with these future shocks in mind – and to discuss solutions to mitigate them – that a group of experts came together to take part in a conference last month.
The Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum conference Next Steps for Food Security in the UK was a wide-ranging event looking at everything from the UK’s self-sufficiency in food, to changing diets and to sustainability but the idea the country is resilient to potential shocks in the food supply chain was not accepted by a number of speakers.
Dan Crossley, associate director of the Food Ethics Council, which provides independent advice on food/farming ethics, said: “I would challenge that. We are vulnerable. It is a bold statement to say we are resilient to future shocks. There are a lot of things coming down the line which could hurt us if we are not careful.
“A lot of what we are doing [on food security] is to be celebrated but there are some areas where we are vulnerable and papering over the cracks in the long term. We mustn’t be complacent.”
Crossley said having a “bold food strategy is vital and said that in his opinion food sustainability and security “heavily overlap”. This was a theme taken up by a number of speakers.
Professor Charles Godfray, director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, said: “There is a need for greater policy clarity. We need debates about how we want to shape the UK food system in the next ten years.”
We need to feed our people. It is perhaps the first priority of any government
He added: “The degree to which the food system needs to be looked at as part of the wider economic system needs to be explored. The changes to land use in the next few years will be the most radical since 1945.”
But Prof. Godfray suggests the issue needs to be looked at on a global scale. “Over the next century the world is going to have to produce more food,” he said. “Demand for food by mid-century could be 30-50% higher. Very few people would argue we have to produce less than 30% more food by mid-century.”
The need to increase production could have obvious impacts on climate and the environment. However, Prof. Godfray pointed out food producers could be severely affected by global warming while also contributing to the problem. “The food system alone could dangerously heat the world,” he said.
Lord Deben, chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change, agreed.
He said: “There are some very fundamental things we have to change to stop the growth of climate change. They are extremely difficult.
“The agriculture community tends to be conservative and does things as it has always done them. It is not an area in which revolution is easily brought about.
“The truth is we need to feed our people. It is perhaps the first priority of any government.
“With food security, we have to say to governments you have to take this more seriously than you have in the past. I think it is almost now our first priority. In the UK it is not being handled well at all.
“Land use will have to play an important part in getting the balance right.”
The link with resilient supply chains
Prof. Godfray suggested a discussion needs to be had on food security being equated with self-sufficiency.
Taking up that challenge, Dustin Benton, policy director at the environmental think tank Green Alliance, said: “We shouldn’t confuse self-sufficiency with security.
“If you wanted to achieve self-sufficiency in normal times you would have to stop people eating food that is difficult to grow in the UK. In practice, the biggest constraint on self-sufficiency is land.”
The link between food security and supply chain resiliency was a key theme at the conference.
Professor Sandy Thomas, chair of the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) Science Council, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted disruption of the food supply chain as a key issue for consumers.”
She, too, linked resilience in the supply change with key environmental issues. “The way we grow, process and transport food is a major contributor to climate change,” she said. Reducing this will need profound changes.”
In a review started in June last year, the FSA’s Science Council is aiming to create a roadmap of issues the the agency will need to consider in greater detail.
Prof. Thomas said themes emerging include the use of food waste and changing farming techniques and regenerative farming.
“There is broad acceptance that the food system needs to reform,” she said.
One man who has already been tasked with sorting out the food supply chain in a time of emergency is Chris Tyas.
A food industry veteran, he is the chair of the Food Resilience Industry Forum, set up by the UK government during the first wave of the pandemic with a brief to keep the nation fed when panic-buying and supply and demand imbalances threatened to create food shortages.
Tyas, a former head of global supply chain at Nestlé, prioritised four key issues – people, orders, production and transport – and also convinced the Government to temporarily suspend rules on competition for the industry, to allow co-ordination on food shortages and logistics.
Speaking at the conference, Tyas again turned to a priority list – what he called the “pillars of food security” in the coming years.
“First, there needs to be collaboration – real end-to-end collaboration throughout the food chain,” he said.
“There is a huge amount of collaboration within individual sectors but very little end-to-end collaboration and, when Covid struck this, was key. Clearly there were some successes with manufacturers, retailers and farmers working together. But how do we maintain that without the crisis of Covid? That’s the big challenge going forward. Just within sectors will not be sufficient to meet the challenges of the future.
“Secondly, data. This is often absent or at best inconsistent in the food industry. It is the second recommendation of the National Food Strategy. It is important but delivery will be hard. We’ve got used to the supply chain being one up, one down but many supply chains have six or seven tiers to them. It’s important that information is transparent. If we are going to eliminate waste we need to know where that occurs to make it visible across the value chain.
“The third pillar of ensuring food security is people. The scale and significance of the food supply chain is by far the largest employer in the UK. But it is also the one most hit by vacancies. How do we attract people and ensure they stay?
“To build food security and trust we need to embrace the diversity of the whole workforce. We have to be able to attract more people and attract the best.”
Analysis by Andy Coyne