After years of neglect, the lack of investment and support for the UK food industry is coming home to roost. Of course covid and Brexit are having a major effect, but the root causes stem from much deeper.
Successive governments have allowed and supported the systematic reduction in the supply of home- grown food. We’re now little more than 50% self- sufficent relying more and more on cheap imported food from across the globe, often of dubious provenance and standards of production. As a result, our supply chains and ability to process food has also reduced. We have seen the demise of almost all small and medium sized abattoirs in the UK (gold- plated regulation) killed them.
Supermarkets have (until now) run highly efficient, trimmed down national supply systems designed to maximise profit and minimise cost. That is one of the reasons why we can’t buy much locally produced, locally processed food from the Major multiples. It has of course been very successful at delivering relatively cheap food to the masses, which government positively supports.
This is the root cause of the issues we are seeing today. Brexit has not caused the problem, it has simply brought into focus the fact that in the government’s eager pursuit of cheap food for the masses, it turned a blind eye to the practices of using the cheapest drivers that can be found for transport sector, thereby driving down the market for UK drivers. Now there is a shortage. Lamb from Cumbria goes to Wales for processing to be brought back to Cumbria to be sold. Most of Cumbria’s milk goes out of the county for processing. One of the major multiples announced in sping 2021 that it was centralising all of its bread production to one “Ambient” bakery to serve the whole of the UK. That’s a lot of haulage and driving miles for one crust.
Today some milk is being tipped down the drain by farmers because there are no collection drivers. I say again this is a result of driving down costs in every part of the food chain. Now all of a sudden supermarket shelves are emptying and there is talk that there may be christmas shortages of pigs in blankets, most of which are imported. Don’t be fobbed off. British farmers with the right backing, the right support and a decent level of profit to ensure a viable farm business, can produce more great food to feed LOCAL people and improve the natural environment at the same time. it can be done but it comes at a cost.
What we see on the horizon are more plans to downsize UK food production, import even more food and concentrate in large rural areas of the UK on looking after the natural environment. This is not joined up thinking. We need to work together to produce the best environment we’ve had in decades, cleaner air, cleaner water and produce more food to feed a rapidly growing UK population. This is the greatest challenge of all. Instead Government is set to focus on nature recovery and significant landscape change, the latter suggesting little room for farming! The writing is on the wall.
We need investment in food production across the length of the food chain from field to fork. Farming, conservation, processing, shortening the supply chain and delivery journeys, seasonality of produce, education about food production and healthy eating. We need this now! i’m afraid the excuses about covid and Brexit will wear thin in time. This issue is synonomous with a much greater problem, the demise of UK food production and who has control of the food chain.
Meanwhile we have a brilliant farming community currently under- resourced, under- utilised, under- appreciated and being taken down a path that may lead to a much worse place in future, possibly the opposite of what government hopes will happen.
I am realistic to know that farming in the UK is going to be different in future and perhaps it needs to be. We all want to see a better natural world, more birds bees, butterflies, wildlife, more trees of the right type and in the right place. We also want to see cattle in the fields, sheep on the hills and more local food to local people.
Right now as world demand for red meat grows and supply falls, UK farmers are enjoying record prices in the sheep sector. This should be another wake up call as to why sustainable red meat and dairy production is vital.
There is a balance to be achieved between farming and nature and we are a long way away from it. It sometimes feels like banging your head against a brick wall.