Tim Lang’s Field Notes: The first UK Food Security Report: complacency versus complexity?

Tim Lang's Field Notes

The first UK Food Security Report: complacency versus complexity?

Professor Tim Lang

Tuesday 18th January 2022

It took quite a parliamentary tussle as the Agriculture Act went through the UK parliament to persuade the Government to publish a regular UK Food Security Report (UKFSR). But it’s required under section 19 of the Act. I had argued in my book Feeding Britain that a proper review was needed -to audit new threats, keep democratic eyes on food infrastructure and food inequalities, and help decision-making about big issues such as whether to grow more or less food here.

UK food security heavily relies (and still does, post-Brexit) upon food imports from Europe. But when Defra slipped out the 322-page UKFSR two days before the Christmas holidays, cynics might have smelled a rat. Was the UKFSR team using the distraction of the Christmas season as an opportune moment to slip out tricky information Government would like ignored?

In my view, scepticism is not needed here. The UKFSR is important. It contains useful data, and is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in food security, not just within the UK. Here is the 6th richest economy of the world auditing its own food security for the first time since 2010. As a person who has long celebrated UK statistics, and the tradition since World War 2 of publishing regular data on the food system, I have been disappointed to see Governments since 2010 ducking UK food security politics. It’s symbolised by the slow decline of annual reviews such as the Food Statistics Pocketbook – once an invaluable compendium, now reduced to a few tables on a website.

Against that recent poor performance, this new three-yearly Report is welcome. But it ought to be annual and, alas, it is threaded through with a regrettable complacency not shared by most of food policy community. I don’t know anyone, except a few ministers, who thinks UK food security is on a sustainable path.

The report is structured around five themes: (1) global food availability; (2) UK food supply sources; (3) supply chain resilience; (4) household food security; and (5) food safety and consumer confidence. These are all reasonable headings. But the big policy and political issues which face the country, not least since go-it-alone Brexit, are avoided: should more food be produced here? How? If not, where from? Is it secure, affordable, healthy? Are public and ecological health in safe hands? Is planning allowing for shocks? Is the public being engaged? Little guidance on these key questions is given other than to reassure readers, it’s all ok.

Reading the report requires critical eyes, for warnings are in fact there. A long list of ecological and social risks can be derived from UKFSR: pollinator decline, weather extremes, over-fishing, fertiliser disruptions (particularly phosphates), soil depletion, seasonal worker shortages, price uncertainties, unmet need, a population with poor diet-related ill-health, and more.

But throughout the UKFSR, when difficulties are raised, a wand waves them away. The wand? Market efficiencies. Everything can be resolved, not by Government but by markets. I exaggerate not. On page 86, for example, we learn that “about 54% of food on plates is produced in the UK” only for reassurance to follow two sentences later thus: “UK food production is driven by market forces rather than aiming to maximise calorie production from available land.”

This verges on magical thinking. ‘Markets’ is a code for how the politics of food are framed by government and how power and control are the missing theme in UKFSR. Worse, just when tricky policy issues arise, the UKFSR retreats to ‘this is not our problem; it’s up to Ministers to decide’. This shows Mrs Thatcher’s oft-cited distinction is still hard-wired in Defra: science advises, ministers decide. If only. Policy analysts know that how problems are framed determines the form ‘evidence’ takes and is presented. Too often in the UKFSR, the self-mute button is activated.

Take the issue of fruit and vegetables (F&V). The UK’s horticulture industry is widely agreed to be in a weak state. Blessed by rich land, water and investment capital, the UK has systematically wound down its horticulture industries to the point where, despite the public being urged to eat more F&V, it consumes far too little, and of that only 16% is home-grown fruit and 54% is home-grown veg. Supply comes from areas such as southern Spain (facing serious ecological pressures) or sources on the other side of the world. Apples and pears are imported despite hundreds of national varieties growing well here. The underlying problem? Labour availability and low farm prices. Only soft berries have expanded in recent decades. Result: growers are reducing their plantings for lack of pickers. This isn’t markets working well but markets being directed and allowed not to grow food. How can the horticultural industries expand – which they should – unless Defra points out the gap between potential and reality?

Or take food trade. In December 2021, after announcing a deal was imminent in July, HM Government concluded a trade deal with Australia, inappropriately described as ‘world class’. Despite endlessly promising that trade deals would not weaken high EU legacy food standards, this deal does just that – not immediately but slowly, over 15 years, safely distant from current ministers. As the Agriculture & Horticultural Development Board wisely pointed out, Australia’s interest in exporting to Britain is likely to rise the more hostile China-West politics become. No wonder farmers (who majority voted for Brexit against their Unions’ advice) now are getting nervous. Like the fisherfolk before them.

Sugar farmers are on track to join them, as the UK Government seems set on a return to ‘colonial’ sugar from Caribbean cane rather than ‘euro’ beet, playing with tariff reduction to encourage imports. The market? To those of us concerned about public health, sugar is sugar, and we want less of it, wherever it’s sourced. Alas, the opportunity to frame this direction – surely what the National Food Strategy report requires – is being evaded.

Here is another fundamental weakness in the UKFSR: a lack of scenario modelling or planning options. No ‘what if’s. Little, in short, to cover the actual serious politics of food security. I hoped the UKFSR would give us data for those options, weigh up pros and cons, point to cross-impacts. There is little of that. Generally, the tone says: UK food security is fine. There are risks, but it’s fine. Look, it says, how well Covid has been weathered. Food flowed. Defra’s tactic of handing over responsibility to nine big retailers worked. Really?

I am not alone in finding this a mix of arrogance and stupidity. Actually food poverty rose during Covid. Food banks were unable to cope. With inflation again rising, and food always a flexible item in household budgets, to judge food under Covid a success, ergo to continue to ‘leave food to markets’, is regrettable. It also flies in the face of history, and makes the UK an international outlier. A country choosing NOT to produce what it could either has imperial delusions or sees food exports as its route to wealth. Neither of these motives fits the UK. There is no empire. And there’s a yawning £24bn negative food trade gap.

A more dispassionate view of the UK food security lessons from Covid is given by the new James Hutton Institute UKRI study. It says Covid is not a good stress test of UK food supply chain resilience.

I don’t know anyone who thought either Covid or Brexit would mean the entire country would starve overnight. Endless studies, however, have confirmed what was learned (too late) from the 1840s Irish Great Hunger: that there is enough food but only for those who can buy it. So if UK food poverty rose in Covid, how can this be deemed a stress test success?

Finally, as a food defence watcher, I was particularly interested in the UKFSR’s words on this (rightly under food resilience). It’s mostly deferred, perhaps wisely, to the National Cybersecurity Agency. But isn’t an open discussion of the state of food cybersecurity needed in the UKFSR? I think it is. Only a few weeks ago, giant James Hall, one of those firms you’ve never heard of (this one supplies Spar ‘independents’), experienced near-closure with a cyber-attack on 300 stores. If you build logistics around satellites, computerisation, Artificial Intelligence and automation, don’t be surprised if vulnerability rises. Might it be wise to decentralise, too? And as I proposed in Feeding Britain, if Government really wants to go-it-alone, it must build civil food defence. Geo-politics are increasingly hostile, if it hasn’t noticed. Just think Ukraine and gas as food infrastructure.

I repeat. Read the UKFSR, but through good-quality, critical lenses. Ask who and what frames markets, who shapes competition policy in an era of food oligopolies, and what MPs could make of the report. It might help, too, to watch the new film Don’t Look Up first, which satirises how politics can ignore, distort and misuse evidence to suit narrow interests…until too late.

Tim Lang is Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and a Special Adviser to the Food Research Collaboration.

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