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The Food Summit, set for Tuesday 16th May, is expected to cover issues around inflation and food security in the British food and agricultural sector, but the full agenda is still to be completed.
A source told The Times that the talks will prioritise inflation, as well as cover four broader themes: trade and exports, supply chain resilience and exports, growth and sustainable farming, and innovation.
Focus on sustainable food production
The food industry is pushing for the government to focus on producing food more sustainably and mitigating climate disaster, and the upcoming summit could be an opportunity to initiate change.
For Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation, the war in Ukraine and subsequent import issues “exposed the real fragility of our current supply chains, which are becoming increasingly vulnerable as climate change worsens.”
Indeed, as Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, “The clock is ticking on the climate and nature crises, and many farmers are struggling in the face of rising costs. Urgent action is needed to join the dots. We urge participants of the summit to be bold in their thinking.”
This is something Lucy Antal, lead for food justice at Feedback Global, is acutely aware of. “Climate change still isn’t being taken seriously and we are seeing the consequences within the global food chain. Spain recently weathered an unusually hot April, meaning that crops such as tomatoes and peppers will be in shorter supply.
“Conversely the Netherlands have had a very wet start to the growing year, delaying planting. We are reliant on imported foods, especially fruits and vegetables, yet we are no longer in the top tier for suppliers, we pay the lowest rates in Europe, and we have created additional barriers with the complications of Brexit.
“This will impact food producer income, and we will see more horror stories such as UK apple trees being replaced by animal feed crops because they offer a better financial return.”
According to Rob, “The solutions are clear. The government should commit to delivering joined-up policy that helps our farmers and growers, to increase investment in sustainable farming and regenerative forestry, and more trees on farms through agroforestry.
A major problem in the food industry is waste, and the global food system is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Feedback is campaigning to change this. “We need firm commitments towards mandatory measurement of farmed food surplus (and the resulting food waste) so that we can address the true scale of the problems caused by overly stringent supermarket contracts,” Lucy added.
Return of the horticulture strategy
With a need to focus on sustainable food production, one main concern is the recent U-turn on producing a horticulture strategy to increase domestic production. Therefore, industry bodies are hoping the government will use this meeting to re-introduce the plans.
As Anna told Speciality Food, “It’s good to see the government is holding a much-needed summit focusing on food security, but securing a resilient future supply of fruit and vegetables is a key part of this. It was extremely disappointing, therefore, to see the recent U-turn on producing a horticulture strategy.”
Vicki Hird, head of the sustainable farming campaign at Sustain, agreed, “It is extraordinary that just weeks out from this summit, the government has binned its own planned horticulture strategy – one of the very few solid pledges contained in its food strategy plan. This decision should be reversed as one outcome of the summit.”
Indeed, with the recent shortages and a mass reliance on imported produce, the horticulture strategy was greatly needed. As Anna explained, “The strategy presented a chance to create long-term, joined up policies to support the threatened UK horticulture sector to reach its enormous potential, as well as an opportunity to secure better health outcomes for citizens by ensuring we have enough affordable fruit and veg. This 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.
“We hope the summit will result in renewed commitment to producing a robust horticulture strategy which will support the sector to flourish and bring many benefits to the nation’s health, the environment, the economy and the UK’s food security.”
Independent sector left out
Amongst the summit’s attendees are the Food and Drink Federation, National Farmers Union, British Retail Consortium and Morrisons. Therefore, another main concern is that the independent and rural retail sector is not included.
As Vicki told Speciality Food, “The government cannot leave the nation’s food security in the hands of the supermarket chains alone. It needs a plan that includes maintaining the independent Groceries Code Adjudicator, new, legally binding supply chain codes of practice, more transparent labelling and ideally an action plan, with investment ideas for infrastructure needed, to increase the market share of shorter and farmer-focused supply chains.”
With only part of the industry represented, some are concerned that this could simply be a photo opportunity for the prime minister, rather than a discussion to generate meaningful change for the UK food sector.
As Lucy put it, “The government needs to start more seriously considering what can grow well here and how they are going to ensure everyone can access healthy, fresh food. This can’t be yet another photo opportunity for the prime minister, accompanied by empty words.”
Vicki agreed, “If the only result of this supposed ‘summit’ is a photo of Rishi Sunak meeting the head of the NFU, then it will be a clear sign that the government has no plan.”