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On Tuesday, prime minister Rishi Sunak welcomed farmers, food producers and some of Britain’s largest supermarkets to tackle issues facing the food industry.
However, many industry bodies were disappointed with the agenda, claiming the summit was ‘no more than a PR stunt’.
Moreover, sustainable food and farming charities were left out of the debate, including Feedback Global. Lucy Antal, lead for food justice at the charity, commented, “Why were civil sustainable food organisations not invited to this discussion? We have meaningful solutions to propose rather than business as usual which got us into this mess in the first place.”
Lee Holdstock, senior business and trade development manager at the Soil Association, added, “Throwing a tea party for a narrow and restricted group of ‘trusted’ advisors was little more than a media moment. Those people and organisations who do have solutions and do share an immense sense of urgency and hope that we can finally do better and face up to the challenges – were not invited to the tea party.”
A misguided attempt
Yesterday’s conference was criticised for not laying out a plan to improve the food system, which is currently in despair.
As Lucy explained, “The UK Farm to Fork summit proved to be a misguided attempt by the government to fix our food system.
“There was discussion on skills and labour within the food sector; but this avoided the thorny question of pay – if we want more farmers, we have to pay people a living wage. We must also address the issues of public transport and housing within rural areas.”
Vicki Hird, head of farming at Sustain, agreed, “We are pleased that the prime minister hosted this summit. The issues around food and farming should be a priority for the government and we hope it remains high on the political agenda.
“However, the government has not really committed to anything particularly new or meaningful when it comes to tackling the many issues farmers and the food system face.”
Indeed, for Lee, “It was a bitter disappointment as the government again failed to take any real steps to tackle the food emergency we are now facing. The government has shown little sense of urgency despite the storm of things they have to address to get us out of the mess.”
While the prime minister made a concerted effort to connect with the National Farmers Union (NFU), according to Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation, “The ‘Farm to Fork’ summit failed to pay due attention to the ‘fork’ element of the challenge.
“We still urgently need a renewed commitment to shoring up the nation’s health, the environment, the economy and the UK’s food security.”
The problem of inflation
The elephant in the room is the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation. While this was on the agenda, Anna argued that it wasn’t a priority for the prime minister.
Disappointed with the outcome of the summit, she told Speciality Food, “We need to think seriously about how we can cope with food price inflation better than we are now, and how we can strengthen not only the resilience of our supply chains but also the resilience of families living in Britain.
“Obviously, inflation is felt more severely by those on a low income because they spend a higher proportion of their budget on food. As a result of this, we’ve seen a doubling of the levels of food insecurity at household level – nine million adults and four million children who are living in households that are struggling to put food on the table.”
Indeed, as Lucy put it, “There is no meaningful plan to address food access while the number of people using food banks has hit an all-time high.”
Increasing domestic production
Prior to the summit, the NFU had called for the government to stop Britain’s self-sufficiency in food from slipping below its current level of 60%.
While ministers failed to respond to this call, Rishi Sunak promised to put UK farming at the heart of future trade deals and vowed that chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef would not be allowed on to the UK market.
This placated the NFU and the British Poultry Council, however sustainable food groups weren’t convinced.
Lucy questioned, “Why is the focus on the export of dairy and seafood when we desperately need to increase domestic production of fruit and vegetables? No wonder the UK Fruit and Vegetable Alliance resigned from the government’s Edible Horticulture Roundtable.”
Indeed, with the recent vegetable shortages causing havoc in supermarkets, it is puzzling that the government would focus on meat production.
As Anna concluded, “Ensuring we have enough affordable fruit and vegetables should be high on the list of government priorities, given the soaring cost of healthy foods during the cost-of-living crisis, along with the empty fresh produce shelves we saw earlier this year.”