The day before the UK government held its second Farm to Fork Summit at 10 Downing Street this week it was issued with a stark warning the country’s ability to feed itself this year is under threat.

As agenda setters go it took some beating but, in reality, it was never going to be a meeting struggling to find issues to discuss.

Aside from that climate-related warning, the food industry is facing inflationary pressures in its supply chain while post-Brexit issues related to the availability of foreign labour are an ongoing struggle for fruit and vegetable suppliers and meatpackers particularly.

Another issue linked to the UK’s departure from the EU is the recently introduced physical border checks on some agri-food imports from the EU.

Importers of foods such as pasteurised cheeses, vegetables such as asparagus, cucumber and broccoli, and shelf-stable meat and dairy goods, now need to pre-notify their consignments and there are concerns extra admin and delays could have an impact on food prices.

The summit on Tuesday (14 May) was the second such event, the first being last May. Seventy representatives from food manufacturing, retail, farming and industry bodies were invited to thrash out the issues they are facing with the government. The fact the summit, like last year’s, was held at 10 Downing Street rather than at a Whitehall ministry was supposedly an indication of how seriously Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who attended, takes these matters.

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A focus on self-sufficiency

Despite a plethora of issues mentioned, it would be fair to say that the summit had a relatively narrow focus.

The food self-sufficiency threat was a key item on the agenda. London-based non-profit organisation the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) said its analysis suggests the country’s ability to feed itself is set to be reduced by 8% this year following one of the wettest winters on record.

The ECIU said heavy rain in the winter months left much of the country’s agricultural land saturated and many farmers have not been able to establish crops.

In response to that warning – pre-summit – Defra (the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs): said: “We are acutely aware of the impact the extreme weather can have on the farming community. We have protected over 900,000 acres of agricultural land from the impacts of flooding since 2015 and opened the Farming Recovery Fund, which provides grants of up to £25,000 ($31,350) to eligible farmers to return their land to the condition it was in before the exceptional flooding caused by Storm Henk.”

Package of support

At the summit, Sunak unveiled a new annual UK Food Security Index to track the impacts of external factors, such as the Russia-Ukraine war or extreme weather events.

The UK government said the index highlighted the lower amount of fruit and vegetables produced domestically relative to other products.

Excerpts of the Food Security Index released ahead of its full publication show the country produced about 17% of the fruit and 55% of the vegetables consumed by the country’s households.

The UK government has also set out a “blueprint” to grow the fruit and vegetable sector “a key growth sector and priority for government”.

Measures announced include providing access to affordable, sustainable energy and water, cutting planning red tape around glasshouses. Defra said it would look to put up £80m of funding to horticulture businesses, a level it said it was double the amount available from the EU legacy Fruit and Vegetable Aid Scheme, which will be replaced from 2026.

Wet weather issues

A larger package of agri-food measures announced includes further support for UK farmers affected by the wet weather.

Building on a commitment to extend the Farming Recovery Fund to support farmers who have been flooded, temporary adjustments will be made for farmers and land managers where the wet weather has led to difficulties carrying out the requirements of the government’s environmental land management schemes.

There will also be £75m to support internal drainage boards to accelerate recovery from the winter 2023-24 storms and provide opportunities to “modernise and upgrade assets that benefit and support resilience for farms and rural communities”.

Supply chain adjudicator announced

More broadly, the government has also announced action to “ensure fairness across the food supply chain”, committing to delivering regulations to improve fairness in the fresh produce and egg sectors.

An agricultural supply chain adjudicator has been appointed to oversee the enforcement of “fair dealing regulations”.

And the package also includes a new Endemics Disease Scheme with more than £72m of funding and an Infrastructure Grant for Laying Hens with more than £20m of funding as part of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway.

The Endemics Disease Scheme is intended to help farmers control Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) in pigs, eradicate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) in cattle, and tackle a range of different health conditions in sheep.

Sunak also announced £3m in support for new and mobile abattoirs through the Farming Investment Fund. This builds on the Small Abattoir Fund which opened last year.

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay said: “Today’s announcements will turbocharge the growth of our horticultural sector supporting the building of cutting-edge glasshouses and innovative farming techniques to put British fruit and vegetables on our plates all-year round.”

A mixed response

The response to the UK government’s announcements and the summit itself has been mixed.

While generally supportive of the measures announced, there was a feeling among some observers that despite being a farm-to-fork summit, the focus was very much on the farm element and that issues facing food processors did not really get an airing.

British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) chairman Tom Kirwan attended the event and afterwards, in a statement provided to Just Food, a spokesperson for the organisation said: “While it was encouraging to see the new measures announced to support UK farmers and growers, it became clear throughout the course of the day that government attention is focused largely on this one part of the food supply chain.

“While self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables is of the most immediate concern, it requires all parts of the food supply chain to be functioning optimally to achieve long-term food security. Indeed, each part of that system has very different issues and needs. Any future food strategy must work for farmers, processors, retailers and consumers alike.

“We are keen to ensure that policymakers recognise the inter-connected and inter-dependent nature of businesses in this sector. We want them to appreciate that processors, when under pressure from trade barriers and worker shortages, will be less able to support a thriving UK livestock sector.”

Rod Addy, director general of the dairy, meat and seafood focused Provision Trade Federation (PTF), said the trade body welcomes the publication of the first Food Security Index. “Agile anticipation and management of this disruption starts with accurate data on how we are managing today,” he added.

“Supply chain fairness is also crucial to sector confidence, efficiency and sustainable investment in food, so it’s great to see the government rolling out the dairy contract framework legislation to eggs. We look forward to a similar approach in the pig sector shortly so pork producers can have more stability in their dealings with customers.

“Measures allowing farmers to enjoy greater flexibility on environmental land management requirements and recover from flooding are welcome, as waterlogged ground has been hampering dairy cow feeding, which in turn will hit milk production. That’s also why aims to improve nutrient management are so vital – to improve milk yields from dairy cows naturally.”

However, Addy described cuts in funding for controls on illegal food imports as “concerning”.

“Everything points to the fact that this is just the tip of the iceberg, so we need to close that gap across all UK ports or our food security could suffer the consequences,” he said.

The Food and Drink Federation, the UK industry association that has some of the largest food manufacturers operating in the country as its members, took a generally positive view of the event.

“The summit was a good opportunity to bring together the whole farm-to-fork sector to discuss in a constructive and open way the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.”

However, they added: “The government now needs to ensure its approach to the food chain is joined up so it makes effective regulation that helps, not hinders food and drink manufacturers and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of the summit taken forward.”

A call for short-term action

Given the emphasis on agri-food at the event, it is perhaps most significant that the National Farmers Union (NFU) – which came up with the idea of the annual summits in the first place –  was nothing less than fulsome in its praise.

“It was good to return to Number 10 today to see and hear the Prime Minister champion British food production, putting it at the top of the national political agenda. Food security is national security,” NFU president Tom Bradshaw said.

“Many of today’s announcements are extremely welcome, particularly those long-term strategic ambitions around the launch of a UK Food Security Index and measures to boost the production of more British fruit and vegetables.”

But he added: “We cannot forget that our members have experienced the wettest 18 months since 1836, including devastating flooding, and many are facing an acute short-term crisis.

“The NFU’s recent confidence survey revealed just how tough it is out there currently – the reality is that some farmers and growers believe they may not survive long enough to benefit from today’s announcements.

“That’s why, while we are pleased to see the Prime Minister and Defra saying UK food security is vital to our national security, we need actions in the short-term that underpin that statement, in order to rebuild confidence and resilience so farming businesses can continue producing food.”

Food industry analyst Clive Black, a director at UK investment company Shore Capital, is a long-time critic of Defra but he said it was “really good news that the Prime Minister and high levels of government are showing an interest in the British food system”.

But echoing the thoughts of the BMPA, he described the event as being “very narrow and shallow” and “piecemeal and disjointed”.

Black, who has long called for the establishment of a minister for the food system, added: “I’m really pleased that the government has shown an interest in horticulture but it should be about the whole food system. Agriculture is much bigger and feeds into processing and retail. It feels like a step forward but this is a marathon not a sprint.”