Is it time for a ministry for food security?
By MIchael Dowsett, Senior Consultant

A highlight of the recent Government reshuffle was the creation of a new department focused on energy security. With spiralling energy costs for households and business, it’s unsurprising that Number 10 sees this as a key priority to tackle ahead of the next general election.

What though of similar concerns about the nation’s food security, also prompted by rising (including energy) costs as a result of the Ukrainian conflict? Even beyond short-term factors, the decades-long shifts needed to tackle climate change and reorient our trade policy to a post-Brexit landscape suggest that this is an area that should command more attention from policymakers.

In 2020, the UK imported 46% of the food it consumed, although no one country accounted for more than 11% of those imports. Despite a significant fall in the proportion of food consumed in the UK being grown in the UK from around 75% to 60% between 1990 and 2010, with this figure having broadly plateaued during the 2010s, the 2021 UK Food Security Report concluded that the UK’s privately owned supply systems were flexible and adaptable, making the UK “resilient to potential shocks in the food supply chain.”

Whilst at that time there would have been confidence around that claim given its stress-testing by the COVID-19 pandemic, the global inflationary pressures caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have proven a far sterner test, despite the UK’s relative lack of direct links to supply chains in Ukraine itself.

With UK food price inflation at 16.7% last year being at its highest level since the 1970s, it’s only natural to consider how we can make ourselves more resilient to future global shocks. Examining different possibilities here offers no silver bullet, however.

One approach could be to ramp up domestic production over the longer-term, though it’s difficult to see how the Government would square this with paying farmers more to re-wild land previously under cultivation, or embrace politically difficult technologies such as a wider use of genetically modified crops without widespread electoral fallout.

Equally, the UK could use its post-Brexit freedoms to strike new trade deals with countries who export large amounts of food, particularly in areas where the UK is currently reliant on a small number of exporters and/or on production in unstable parts of the world. Diversification of supply, whilst certainly part of the solution to enhancing food security, also carries significant political risks, as anybody who’s watched Jeremy Clarkson lament the impact of the UK-Australia trade deal on beef prices in the latest series of Clarkson’s Farm will testify.

The various conundrums at the heart of this question were neatly captured in the recommendations of the 2021 Government-commissioned National Food Strategy, which recommended changes to farming methods to generate both more sustainable land use and higher yields, whilst being chilly on the likely impact of future trade deals. Whether the Government will find a way to ‘have its cake and eat it’ (to borrow a well-worn political phrase) when it publishes its Land Use Framework for England later this year remains to be seen.

As with the related challenge of energy security then, some sort of ‘all of the above’ approach focused on sustainable increases in domestic production in line with other government goals, and broadening and strengthening international sources of supply, seems the most sensible way forward, albeit one which is unlikely to insulate the UK from future inflationary shocks caused by world events or natural disasters such as widespread harvest failures.

The lack of scope for dramatic action, certainly in the short-term, then brings us to the political sustainability of continuing on broadly the same arrangements for sourcing our food supply as we have at present. When an increasingly volatile world throws up challenges – whether that be a new pandemic or one country invading another – which hit people at home squarely in the pocket, inflationary spikes such as that which we’ve seen over the past year can’t go ignored by any government hoping to be re-elected. Accordingly, whether or not further down the line there is a more institutionalised focus on food security in Whitehall, as there now is with energy, will be of secondary concern compared to how generous the Government is prepared to be with its own cheque book at times of crisis.

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