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UK food system struggles against wet weather and rising food prices

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during the Farm to Fork summit in Downing Street
At the Farm to Fork summit, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled the UK’s first Annual Food Security index, which showed a “broadly stable picture” but highlighted “long-term risks from climate change” (Photo: Toby Melville — WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The UK government’s Farm to Fork summit is dubbed a ‘jamboree for farmers’, with health and sustainable farming practices missing from announcements

UK farmers were facing dire growing conditions as the government held its second annual Farm to Fork summit at Downing Street on May 14.

The 18 months up to May 2024 have been the wettest on record since the 1800s, data from think-tank the Energy Climate and Intelligence Unit shows. The ECIU estimates that the upcoming 2024 harvest of key arable crops, such as wheat and barley, could be as much as a fifth lower than average — which would reduce the UK’s food self-sufficiency by nearly a 10th.

Farmers across the UK are “on the brink”, Tom Clarke, farmer and chair for the cereals sector at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, told journalists during a briefing earlier in May. He warned of increasing food prices as fields remain uncropped due to the unusually wet weather.

Attendees to the summit included farming industry leaders, as well as large food companies, who said they were ready to increase sustainability and health reporting to support the sector. Yet some saw the lack of environmental and health advocacy groups on the delegate list as a disappointing omission.

Tom Lancaster, land analyst at the ECIU, told Sustainable Views the annual summit was more of a “jamboree for farmers” than a policymaking discussion, to be used by the Conservative government to “shore up core votes [from farming communities]”.

With global food systems responsible for a third of total greenhouse gas emissions, Lancaster stressed the importance of including environmental issues in food and farming debates. “You absolutely cannot talk about the future of production food security for the UK without coming up with a plan for how to make the sector more resilient to climate change, but also how to transition the sector towards net zero,” he said.

Anna Taylor, executive director of charity the Food Foundation, told Sustainable Views the government should also be thinking about public health and sustainability as related challenges, and mandatory reporting on health and sustainability for food companies should be a policy priority.

Taylor said large companies should report on farming practices; Scope 3 emissions; food waste; the proportion of protein that is animal source versus plant source; and the amount of food that they sell which is high in fat, sugar or salt.

Mandatory reporting would likely have a “soft landing” among large food companies, she added, as many have previously spoken out in favour of it.

Companies welcome reporting

The Hope Farm Statement, published in May by non-profit the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and signed by leading food companies including Nestlé, Danone and Arla, called for “mandatory nutrition and sustainability standards” and “mandatory reporting” from food companies on their health and biodiversity impact.

Danone UK and Ireland president James Mayer told Sustainable Views that the government must create “a stronger policy environment”, including “much more transparency and mandatory reporting on the healthiness of products”.

He also called on the government to fully implement legislation restricting the promotions of products high in fat, sugar or salt. “I don’t think any of us in the industry want to see any more delay and uncertainty,” he added.

Danone has achieved its commitment for 90 per cent of its portfolio to be products that are not high in fat, sugar and salt, Mayer said.

An Institute for Public Policy Research report published in May found there was “strong public support” in the UK for more policy intervention to reduce obesity rates and their associated impacts on health. Three in four people said the government should be doing more to support health, including greater regulation, taxation and reporting from food companies.

Food regulations delayed

In 2021, the government commissioned a National Food Strategy by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. The strategy outlined policy recommendations for the government to revise the UK’s food sector to improve health and sustainability. Measures included taxing businesses on their salt and sugar use, incentivising the move to more plant-based diets, and improving land management in the UK. 

The government has largely ignored the recommendations. Taylor, who was also chief independent adviser to Dimbleby, told Sustainable Views that the main reason for a delay in implementation was “a lack of political will”.

In June 2022, the UK government published a response to the food strategy focused on “longer-term measures to support a resilient, healthier, and more sustainable food system”. But in a 2023 report, academics from the universities of York, Sheffield, Reading and Cambridge said the government had abandoned the plans in “less than a year”.

“If you look at what’s happened politically in Britain since [2021] we’ve had crisis after crisis, and I think at the end of the day, there hasn’t been the political leadership that something like this needs,” Taylor told Sustainable Views. 

Government focuses on reducing imports

At this week’s summit, the government published the UK’s first annual Food Security Index assessing the state of the UK food security and its dependence on imports. While the index showed a “broadly stable picture” it also highlighted “long-term risks from climate change”.

“As climate change drives more extreme weather both in the summer and the winter, the adoption of more climate resilient farming practices will become increasingly important,” it said.

Funding packages announced by the government during the summit included £10mn to help English orchard growers and a £75mn fund to support internal drainage boards — the regional authorities that manage water-related infrastructure — to reduce the effects of flooding.

The government will also invest £15mn in “genetic improvement networks”, which it says will boost access to more climate-resilient crop varieties.

Central to the UK government’s May 14 announcements was a blueprint for the fruit and vegetable sector, underlining the country’s reliance on imports — domestic growers produce 17 per cent of the fresh fruit consumed in the UK and 55 per cent of the vegetables, says the government.

Fresh produce is “most vulnerable” to shortages and increasing prices resulting from climate change, the ECIU’s Lancaster told Sustainable Views, especially as many imported products come from regions such as southern Europe and north Africa, which are struggling with drought and longer heatwaves.

Low-income households will be most affected by lower imports and higher prices, said Taylor. Data from the Food Foundation shows that 60 per cent of “food insecure households” in the UK bought less fruit and 44 per cent bought fewer vegetables than normal in January 2024, as food prices remained high. In January 2024, 15 per cent of UK households were considered food insecure by the Food Foundation.

Sustainable farming practices

While the announcements published by the UK government during the food summit included brief mentions of climate and biodiversity, they gave no details on how the UK farming sector will be encouraged to adopt sustainable farming practices.

James Young, UK vice-president of agriculture at food company McCain, told Sustainable Views: “The widespread adoption of regenerative agricultural practices is needed to ensure the long-term viability of British farming and protect the UK’s domestic food supply.” He defines regenerative farm as a way to “improve farmer resilience, yield and quality by restoring soil health and enhancing biodiversity”.

McCain is the biggest purchaser of UK potatoes and buys around 15 per cent of the UK’s annual potato crop. It currently operates two regenerative farms in Canada and South Africa, with the aim of sourcing from 100 per cent regenerative farms by 2030, and is providing grants to farmers to buy equipment, technology and access expertise.

A service from the Financial Times