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Earlier this week, supermarkets such as Asda, Aldi, Tesco and Morrisons put limits on the purchases of some fruit and vegetables following extreme weather, including floods, in Spain and North Africa which has affected food harvests.
As Britain relies on imports of produce such as tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and peppers during the winter months, the farming industry has issued an urgent warning.
The situation has demonstrated the vital need to shift towards more sustainable food production and shorter supply chains, something indies can play a part in.
NFU Conference 2023
The shortages have coincided with the NFU Conference 2023, where president Minette Batters spoke to environment secretary Therese Coffey about Britain’s food production situation.
Therese Coffey’s response to the NFU president’s line of questioning on the challenging situation for the farming industry was met by boos from the audience as she refused to accept that Britain’s supply chain – hit by widespread food shortages – had seen market failure.
“We can’t control the weather in Spain”, she remarked, “I understand the costs are high, and food inflation is high. Your input costs are high… I’m not necessarily seeing a market failure.”
Rebutting the Defra minister’s claims, Minette argued that although the current shortages were primarily driven by conditions outside of British farmers’ control, the government could do more to encourage people to produce food in the UK.
“We have been warning of food supply issues for so long now. The situation in the egg sector, the poultry, meat sector, horticulture… all of these things can be overcome, but it really needs a fresh approach”, she reiterated.
Additionally, the Save British Farming group blamed Brexit and the “disastrous” Tory government for the shortages – describing the idea of only the weather in Spain being to blame as “absolute nonsense”.
“The reason that we have food shortages in Britain and that we don’t have food shortages in Spain – or anywhere else in the EU – is because of Brexit, and also because of this disastrous Conservative government that has no interest in food production, farming or even food supply,” said Liz Webster, chair of the organisation.
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, agreed. “With the climate crisis escalating, the government must reduce our reliance on food imports and do more to support sustainable food production here in the UK.
“Although all need to eat more seasonably, it is no coincidence that these food shortages also come alongside news of the lowest rates of domestic production of salad, including cucumbers and tomatoes, since records began in 1985.
“The bite of soaring costs for inputs, storage, packaging and transport, shortages of seasonal labour and farm gate prices facing our horticultural sector are increasingly unsustainable.”
A sustainable solution?
According to Tom Bradshaw, NFU deputy president, “In the current economic climate, the production of affordable, climate-friendly food, energy and fibre is more important than ever.
“Yet British farmers face huge challenges, from extreme weather events to crippling energy, feed and fertiliser costs, which are limiting our ability to deliver these crucial products for the nation.
“To overcome these barriers, we need to build resilience into our agri-food supply chains by improving efficiency, increasing on-farm carbon storage and producing more renewable energy.”
In fact, as Vicki Hird, head of the sustainable farming campaign at Sustain, explained, “Given the ever-growing stresses from the climate and nature emergency globally, it’s vital that all nations address how they can build up more resilience in their domestic agriculture and horticulture sectors. We’ve become so used to year-round and abundant supplies of produce from global markets and even domestic glasshouses.
“In the UK we can no longer expect to rely on other nations’ water, land and labour. Moving consumers to more seasonal and domestic varieties, that fit local conditions and which have lower inputs, will be a major shift, but more transparency about the impact of produce and sorter supply chains will help.”
It seems that while unpredictable natural disasters such as floods and adverse weather will always pose a threat, the government needs to focus on wider-reaching long term food security through sustainable solutions.
Vicki told Speciality Food, “This means investing in the training, finance and supportive policies that help build new capacity, diversity and sustainability across the UK – from peri-urban market gardens, to more orchards and agroforestry, more rotations in arable farming and more mixed farming. And all this needs to be based on agroecological principles using fewer expensive inputs like energy and chemicals and protecting nature and nature-based climate actions.
“Fine and smaller food retailers and traders can be the backbone of this vital transition by being a far shorter and more responsive chain between farmer and consumer, communicating seasonality and standards and paying fairly, rewarding high standards like organic. But this can’t happen without government action with well-designed financial support, new supply chain transparency and regulation and investment in shorter, better trading systems.”
This is something Rob agreed with. “During the pandemic, the shorter, more values-based supply chains that we see for farm shops and box schemes came to the rescue for some people amid supermarket shortages.
“These fairer, more localised supply chains also hold a key part of the answer to the interlinked climate, nature, public health, and cost-of-living crises. Our schools, hospitals and other public settings should also be serving and creating more of a market for sustainable, British food.
“The value of sustainable, healthy food production needs to be adequately rewarded through the whole supply chain.”