Britain is one shock away from a food crisis, experts warn

The country’s dependence on imports has made it increasingly vulnerable to volatile food and energy prices.

The UK is one global shock away from a food crisis, experts have warned, as the country is overly reliant on the rest of the world for staple goods.

Britain’s dependence on imports had made it increasingly vulnerable to volatile food and energy prices, they said, criticising the Government for not taking its food security “seriously”.

“When it comes to food we are massively dependent on other countries,” Prof Timothy Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at the University of London.

“If you look at nutrient value, Britain doesn’t even produce half of its food. We export meat and dairy and import that which is good for health – namely, fruit and vegetables.”

Government figures show Britain imports 46 per cent of its fresh vegetables and 84 per cent of its fresh fruit.

In the past three years, food prices in the UK have been shaken by Covid, Brexit and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The impact on food is already being felt by people across the country.

Almost one in 20 British households said one of their family members went a whole day without eating in the past month, because they couldn’t afford or get access to food. In April 2022, 13.8 per cent of households experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, a five percentage point increase on January 2022, according to analysis by the Food Foundation.

Emma, a mother of three from Kent, and who works three jobs, told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday that she had not eaten three meals a day for months because she wanted to make sure she could afford food for her children.

The most recent blow has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries together accounted for 29 per cent of international wheat annual sales, while Ukraine grew enough food for 400 million people. Russia is also a major fertiliser exporter, and the surge in its pricing – linked to a surge in the price of gas – has impacted British farmers.

“George Eustice, the UK Secretary of State for Defra, said we don’t need to worry about Ukraine. I don’t know what on earth is going on in Defra for the Secretary of State in charge of food supply to be so inaccurate and inappropriate,” Prof Lang said. “Ukraine has rocketed world food prices, oil and fertiliser prices, grain and edible oil prices.”

Food ‘used as a weapon of war’

In the past four months, Russia has also blockaded exports from Ukrainian ports and bombed food stores. It is estimated that as much as 25m tonnes of grain is now rotting silos, unable to leave the country.

“We are seeing the ruthlessness of food being used as a weapon of war,” Prof Lang said. But Russia’s invasion alone could not be blamed for the UK’s precarious situation, Prof Lang added.

“Britain was already in a risky situation before the war,” he said. “There are serious issues around Brexit. Britain gets the vast majority of what it imports from the EU. The government says it has left the EU – it hasn’t, the EU feeds us.”

Government figures show the UK imports 46 per cent of its vegetables, the vast majority of which come from the EU.

Prof Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: “The UK is dependent on globalised food chains but it’s ultimately problematic. This is the problem of interconnectedness – once something changes it can have knock on impacts.”

The UK is not alone in facing acute food insecurity, and the threat of other countries facing economic hardship could have a further knock-on impact on both exports and imports.

The UK must now keep a close eye on crises unfolding across the world, such as Syria, which is still in the grips of civil war, Lebanon, which lost food storage at the Beirut port explosion in 2020, and Egypt, whose prime minister described its current economic crisis as the country’s worst in a century.

Prof McKee said any number of issues could further complicate food security, such as another swine flu outbreak – which could see thousands of pigs culled – or soaring temperatures, destroying harvests.

“Temperatures in Spain have been hitting 40 degrees,” Prof McKee said. “In the next few months this will probably lead to a squeeze on fresh vegetables, that will have a huge impact.”

The UK imports 19 per cent of its fruits and vegetables from the Mediterranean country, amounting to £1.8bn.

Prof Lang added: “If there was a total catastrophe in Spain or Portugal, we would have to act very, very quickly.”

There are scores of solutions, both experts said, but they need political will and heavy investment.

Prof Lang said the UK must “stop assuming other people should feed us” and start by rebuilding horticulture.

“We need to rebuild horticulture – that’s what feeds people, the plants and fruit. To do that, we need to sort out the labour issue and farmers’ salaries,” he said.

Prof Lang pointed to Monmouthshire’s Our Food 1200 initiative, which is aiming to rebuild the local food economy by creating a network of small-scale growers serving local communities on three to five acre plots. The aim is to grow fruit and vegetables on a total of 1,200 acres and create 1,200 jobs.

“We need a three to five year strategy to build up horticulture in the short term, on a devolved level, but we also need to be thinking in terms of a 30-year horizon. We need to rebuild the horticulture industry we have allowed to die,” he added.

Country ‘not taking it seriously’

Prof McKee, meanwhile, said the Government should focus on increasing the number of seasonal agricultural workers.

“We have already lost seasonal agricultural workers to Brexit – these were being replaced by Ukrainians, but we will no longer get them. This can only be dealt with with freedom of movement,” he said.

“The government could also agree to a food safety agreement with the EU – that’s the easiest and most obvious solution [to food insecurity], and it can be done instantly by the stroke of the pen. Politically, they’re not going to do it.”

Prof Lang added: “My frustration is, my country is not taking it seriously, it just does knee-jerk reactions. If the Chancellor is prepared to throw £15bn at alleviating energy problems, why is he not doing this for food?”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We reject the claims that we are overly reliant on the rest of the world for food. Thanks to our farmers, we are almost 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry and certain vegetables.

“When it comes to food we can produce here, we are 75 per cent self-sufficient. Agricultural commodities are linked to global gas prices, and these are affecting input costs for farmers – as they are around the world.”

Defra added that it grows 88 per cent of all the cereals needed in the UK, is 86 per cent self-sufficient in beef, fully self-sufficient in liquid milk and produces more lamb than consumed in the UK. It added that the country is close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, carrots and swedes – and close to 90 per cent self-sufficient in eggs.

But Prof Lang warned: “Be prepared for shocks – we’ve seen the beginning of this with Covid and it’s going to get much worse.”

Source: The Telegraph