Food Security in the UK

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

The UK government have committed to publishing a report relating to food security in the UK at least once every three years as part of the Agriculture Act 2020. The first report was published just before Christmas and explores past, current, and predicted data relating to food security to set a baseline for comparisons as subsequent reports are published.

What is food security?

The term food security is widely used but the definition can vary considerably. A definition was initially agreed on at the World Food Summit in 1996 as “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. More recently food security has become more complex and explores the resilience of food production and supply chains as well as food safety. With this in mind, this report has explained food security as:

“Food security has many dimensions. As a topic, it encompasses the state of global agriculture and markets on which the UK is reliant; the sources of raw materials and foodstuffs in the UK and abroad; the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail industries that ultimately bring food to shelves and plates, and their complex supply chains of inputs and logistics; and the systems of inspection that allow consumers to be confident their food is safe, authentic, and of a high standard.”

Report Findings

The report explored food security across five trends; global food availability, UK food supply, supply chain resilience, household-level food security, and food safety and consumer confidence, and identified key indicators to track progress in future reports.

The key headline when talking about food security is self-sufficiency. Currently, the UK produces 60% of domestic food by value, part of which is exported as the UK imports 46% of the food it consumes. This is a considerable reduction from being 78% self-sufficient in 1984, however, as discussed in the report part of this reduction is due to the changing dietary habits and demand for food out of season or not grown in the UK. In addition, sourcing food from global markets can increase food supply resilience as it reduces the risks associated with potential limited food availability. Nevertheless, there needs to be a balance and often higher levels of self-sufficiency can be seen as preferable to reduce the potential logistical, political, and production risks, whilst ensuring that any imports come from a diverse range of sources to increase resilience in food supply.

Another key finding was that global food availability and supply has been improving since 2010 and this growth is largely due to improved efficiencies rather than expansion in agricultural land. However, the reports states:

“Food security rests ultimately not on maximising domestic production, but on making the best use of land types which vary in quality and potential uses…. there is a need to balance and integrate food production with environmental factors to support efficient and sustainable land use”.

The report identified that climate change, exploitation of natural capital resources and biodiversity loss are the biggest factors that threaten the stability and long-term sustainability of food production, and therefore food security. Ultimately there needs to be a balance between producing high yields to satisfy food demand and ensuring sustainable production to reduces the impact on natural capital and public goods. This is something that will begin to be addressed through the new environmental land management (ELM) schemes which are focused on paying for public goods and protecting natural capital.

Another key point in considering future food security is soil health. Impacts on soil health, such as soil degradation, erosion and compaction reduce the capacity of soils to produce food, and it is predicted that there has been a loss of 40 to 60% of soil organic capital in UK arable soils due to this, according to the Environment Agency. There is also the issue regarding plant diseases and pests as they can cause loss of between 20 to 40% of global crop production each year. This, combined with the reduced number of active ingredients and available pesticides, has the potential to cause farmers issues. It is predicted that climate change could also alter the range and frequency of pest and disease attacks in the future, further threatening stability in food production. These are just a few examples of the risks identified in the report all of which could negatively impact food production in the future, and therefore the stability of food supply and ultimately food security.

The report also identified other key aspects beyond food production that can present a risk to food security including uneven distribution of food, food waste, geographical and political issues, and labour availability which ultimately impact getting the food that is grown, to the consumers. Furthermore, there are potential shocks to the supply chain such as transportation, labour, geopolitical, and other unexpected risks such as COVID-19 that can impact food supply. The report identified that although many of these risks have caused shocks over recent years, the supply chain recovered relatively quickly and upheld continuity of supply which demonstrates resilience within the supply chain and instils confidence that it could respond to similar events in the future.

Finally, the report explored the affordability and access to food, as well as food safety and standards. A government survey from 2020 concluded that 92% of households considered themselves to be food secure, whilst 4% answered that they had low food security, and the final 4% answered very low food security. Although the majority consider themselves to be food secure, there is still a high percentage of people with low food security which may be due to affordability and access to food. The report found that in terms of accessibility, 84% of the population are able to reach a shop by public transport or walking within 15 minutes, and that on average, food and drink has become cheaper compared to other goods and services over the last decade. However, affordability and access really need to be understood in the wider context in terms of overall household expenditure and personal circumstances which probably needs to be explored in future reports.

Research published in 2019 by the University of Sheffield explored food security through levels of hunger, and affordability and access to food at a local authority level. This research gives a different picture compared to the government report, which explored food security at a regional level. The report by the University of Sheffield found that High Wycombe is the worst area for food security with 14% of people hungry, and nearly 30% struggling to access food, whether that be skipping meals or not knowing where their next meal will come from. Furthermore, one in six local authorities have rates of hunger more than 150% of the national average, while one in ten local authorities have rates that are almost 300% the national average. Assessing food security at the local level definitely demonstrates a different picture and shows that there is a serious issue with the amount of people that are hungry or struggle to access food in certain areas of the country.

This report explored food security in 2021, however, further threats to food security have surfaced in the first few months of 2022. The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia could have serious implications on food prices, food availability, and input prices. This, combined with the crisis already ongoing with energy and fuel prices, could have serious impacts on the food system and food production. There needs to be a balance between the need for profit for farmers who are going to be squeezed even further by increased fuel, fertiliser, and energy costs, with managing the inflation of food prices to ensure food remains accessible and affordable for the public. Although this could be slightly offset by higher prices in some sectors, this cannot be relied upon for profit due to the volatility in the markets, and it does not mitigate the problem for the consumers. Going forwards there will need to be awareness along the whole agri-food supply chain to ensure these problems do not impact food security in the UK (and globally) even further.

Conclusion

So, what is the future of food security? The government report has identified that food security in the UK is relatively stable in terms of food supply and availability, access to food, and resilience within the supply chain. However, there are key factors that could cause risks in the future that all those within food industry should be mindful of. Food production could be considered as the most important part of food security. However, with pressures such as climate change, availability of natural resources, labour availability, environmental pressures, and unreliable weather patterns there could be long-term risks to food supply. With this in mind, the key word that comes to mind whilst reading this report is resilience. Businesses need to build resilience and respond to this ‘perfect storm’ of issues and risks such as the ones listed above, alongside changing policy, environmental commitments, economic impacts, and maintaining and improving food security. The number of risks can seem quite overwhelming, but many interlink or crossover, and with this in mind levy payers should be mindful of the key risks that could affect their businesses and how they can continue to produce food sustainably and build the UK’s food security.

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