Horizon blog: Ukraine war brings UK food security to forefront

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Amid the devastation and humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the vulnerability of UK food supply chains to global shocks has been exposed. As farmers grapple with rocketing inputs prices and consumers with soaring household bills, our analyst Jess Corsair takes a closer look at the UK’s food security.

The shockwaves of the war in Ukraine, hot on the heels of Covid 19, are being felt across global commodities markets and food supply chains here and abroad. Here at AHDB we have been inundated with enquiries about the implications of the conflict, particularly on grain, oilseeds, fertiliser and fuel availability and prices. Our own analysts blogged last week that the war was set to cast “a long shadow”, creating huge challenges for farmers and growers in managing the volatility.

The crisis has certainly caught the attention of those in the know in the food industry and reignited a debate about food security at a domestic and global level. In an interview with the Guardian, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) chief economist warned: “We were already having problems with food prices. What countries are doing now is exacerbating that and the war is putting us in situation where we could easily fall into a food crisis.” On Wednesday (16 March) Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots MLA wrote to Rt Hon George Eustice MP, the UK’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying: “Sectors along the entire the food supply chain in Northern Ireland have contacted me highlighting serious concerns over the unprecedented rise in input costs, the lack availability of fertilizer and maize and the rising fuel costs as prime examples. Compounding this, we are still dealing with the labour shortage crisis, especially in the pork sector.” The NFU has written to the government urging it to “act now, with a clear signal that food security is a priority for the nation". 

So what does food security actually mean and what did it look like for the UK before the current crisis? As part of the 2020 Agriculture Act, the government committed to publishing a report relating to food security in the UK at least once every three years. 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. I’ve written an article looking at this report if you would like to explore its findings in more detail but it describes food security as encompassing the state of global agriculture and markets on which the UK is reliant – a wide-ranging definition. Breaking this down, 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.

Self-sufficiency is often a key headline, with the UK currently producing 60 per cent of its food by value. This masks that we import 46 per cent of our food, driven by consumer demand for specific and out of season products to satisfy dietary needs. In ‘normal’ times sourcing food globally can actually improve supply chain resilience as it spreads risk in terms of availability of supply. But the flipside is you are exposed to other risks – logistical, production and, as we have sadly witnessed, political.

Another threat to food security is whether it is sustainable in the long term, which is where climate change, natural capital (such as soils) and biodiversity come in. This is reflected in government policy, including the introduction of environmental schemes. The report explores a wide range of other factors, concluding 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. While it recognises shocks such as Covid have impacted food security, it identified the supply chain was quick to recover and ensure continued supply.

This resilience is key, for the agri-food sector as a whole both domestically and globally, but that starts on farm. Here at AHDB we are helping farmers and growers build resilient and sustainable businesses through our free Farm Business Review service – you’ll benefit from expert one-to-one advice and access tools and resources tailored to you to get your business in the best shape to withstand any unexpected shocks.

At the time of writing we have no idea how long the conflict will last and how it might develop. However, it has undoubtedly put the food security debate back on the agenda and the aftershocks will reverberate through our supply chains for a long time to come.

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