British food industry could be ‘sleepwalking’ into a national crisis

06 December 2022, 13:07 PM
  • According to the National Farmers Union, the UK could be about to face serious supply chain issues – how can the government tackle it?
British food industry could be ‘sleepwalking’ into a national crisis

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has warned that yields of tomatoes and other popular crops will likely slump to record lows this year, it said, with potential supply problems ahead as already seen with eggs

In fact, UK pear production is at its lowest level since records began in 1985, and the huge growth in UK sweet pepper production in the UK is under threat, while dairy farmers are having to reduce herd sizes to cope with inflationary prices.

This is due to soaring fuel, fertiliser and feed costs that are putting farmers under severe pressure, with fertiliser prices for farmers more than tripling since 2019 and the cost of feed and diesel up by 75%. Coupled with a loss of seasonal workers to harvest and sow earlier this year, the farming industry is facing a perfect storm.

Supply chain crisis
The consequence of these issues could be serious supply chain issues if action is not taken to help the farming industry cope with demand.

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said in a statement, “Shoppers up and down the country have for decades had a guaranteed supply of high-quality affordable food produced to some of the highest animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards in the world. That food, produced with care by British farmers, is critical to our nation’s security and success. But British food is under threat.

“Only last week, the former Director General of MI5, The Baroness Manningham-Buller, said that food is part of our critical national infrastructure and that government needs to be consistent in planning for our food supply. I couldn’t agree more, particularly at a time when global volatility is threatening the stability of the world’s food production, food security and energy security.

“We have already seen the egg supply chain crippled under the pressure caused by these issues and I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises, with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble. We need government and the wider supply chain to act now - tomorrow could well be too late.”

Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, added, “The UK pig sector is still in meltdown as worker shortages continue to impact our ability to process the number of pigs we already have on farms.

“The entire food supply chain and government must pull together and resolve the backlog now or we will have no independent pig producers left. Already 60% of the pork eaten in the UK comes from the EU – it would be a travesty to see this figure increase as more healthy UK pigs are culled on farms and their meat wasted.”

Tackling the emergency situation
Of course, this will have a detrimental impact on struggling retailers, especially indies. As Tina McKenzie, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), explained, “Healthy supply chains are the cogs that keep the economy alive because they boost the productivity, resilience and financial strength of small and large businesses alike.

“Although small businesses are agile, they are also very vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. Our figures show that almost 90 per cent of all small businesses based in rural areas have reported an increase in the cost of running their business, which is feeding through to increased inflation in food and other areas.

“The most important thing that large customers can do to ensure resilient supply chains, is to pay small businesses in the supply chain promptly. With over half of rural small businesses currently experiencing challenges related to late payments and lengthy payment periods, these additional pressures could be the difference between open and shut for many small firms.”

In order to tackle the crisis, the NFU called on the government to do more to help farmers who were being pushed out of business, saying there were currently 7,000 fewer registered agricultural companies in the UK than in 2019. It urged the government to consider giving emergency support to egg producers, given the recent disruption seen by consumers and farmers.

The NFU also said ministers should lift a cap on seasonal overseas workers to tackle labour shortages and establish a new ‘food security’ target, which would include an obligation to monitor and report on domestic food production levels.

According to Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, food retailers and producers are working hard to adapt to a post-Brexit world. But he urged, “The government needs a coherent food policy to maintain UK production, including a clear strategy for solving labour shortages throughout the supply chain.”

Bob Carnell, chief executive of Anglo Beef Processors (ABP UK), added, “To help deliver and give UK consumers and other markets access to the best beef in the world, we need to attract and retain more skilled workers from home and abroad and ensure a level playing field for quality British meat when compared to imports.”

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