16 May 2024, 10:28 AM
  • The government has revealed a new index and blueprint to measure and grow the UK’s fruit and vegetable sector and reinforce the country’s food security, but critics are calling for more support to help farms from going under
Farmers call for short-term support to boost food security

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged farmers to grow more fruit and vegetables to reduce the UK’s reliance on foreign imports as he set out its first ever food security index, but farmers say more support is needed in the short-term to bolster the industry as confidence plummets.

What is the food security index – and what did it find?

Defra released its first annual UK Food Security Index to assess the state of the country’s food security in 2023-2024. It’s designed to complement the three-yearly UK Food Security Report by measuring year-on-year changes and considering wider factors, like global conflicts and weather.

According to the index, while the UK is at “its most productive since records began,” the fruit and vegetable sector is “significantly lagging behind” meat, dairy and grains, with only 17% of fruit and 55% of veg consumed in the UK being grown on our shores. In total, domestic production of all food in the UK stands at around 60% of consumption.

In a blog post, Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, said that to its members, the index “looks helpful but wildly out-of-date given the problems now manifest in our food and farming system and so well documented in the National Food Strategy”. For example, while the index measures nine indicators, the group called these a “narrow set” and said it should also track nutritional security, household food security or environmental security.

Package of support revealed at Farm to Fork Summit

The publication of the index was part of the government’s second Farm to Fork Summit, held on 14th May, which brings together government and key representatives from the farming and food sectors at Downing Street.

As part of the summit, an £80m funding scheme, the Horticulture Resilience and Growth offer, was announced for farmers and growers in place of the £40m EU scheme.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay said the announcements would “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.”

He added that the government will continue to “invest in and support farmers to produce the best of British food to strengthen our food security, championing innovation in the sector.”

Immediate action needed to rebuild resilience

While NFU president Tom Bradshaw welcomed the publication of the index and the long-term plans to increase domestic production, he stressed the need for immediate support to help the sector and rebuild confidence and resilience.

“Food security is national security,” Tom said, adding, “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.”

As the UK experienced its wettest 18 months since 1836, the NFU’s recent confidence survey revealed that short and mid-term confidence was at its lowest since records began in 2010. Because of this, all farming sectors are expecting to decrease production over the next year.

“The reality is that some farmers and growers believe they may not survive long enough to benefit from today’s announcements,” Tom said. Indeed, 65% of respondents said their profits were declining, or their business may not even survive.

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, also welcomed the news of financial and policy support for the fruit and veg industry, but she said it “doesn’t come close to” plans proposed last year which the government “ditched”.

Currently, Kath said, half of Britain’s fruit and veg growers say that their businesses “are in peril from pitifully low farmgate prices, labour shortages, unfair trading by supermarkets and the extreme weather experienced over recent years”.

“True food security is built on respect and fair trading for farmers, production of food that supports affordable healthy diets, and care for the health of soil, pollinators and a stable climate that make growing food possible,” she said.

To make the most of the funding, the Landworkers Alliance urged the government to focus on targeted investments for a greater number of smaller growers and to support local food infrastructure. “Fruit and vegetable growers need a roadmap for the next 20 years so that they have security to make long-term investments in soil, equipment, infrastructure and building relationships with customers,” said Rebecca Laughton, horticulture lead for the Landworkers Alliance.

Calls for more nature-friendly farming

To truly secure the country’s food supply, Soil Association Certification chief executive Dominic Robinson said more nature-friendly farming is needed. 

While he welcomed the government’s recognition that the British food system is in trouble, he said, “Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are the biggest threats to food security and farmers are already seeing how catastrophic drought and flooding can be for their crops, land and animals. 

“If we want to truly secure our food supply, we need more nature-friendly and organic farming that works in harmony with wildlife. It’s clear the status quo of intensive farming is not achieving food security.”

Dominic called on the government to offer long-term support for farmers to shift to resilient practices that protect soils and don’t rely on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, as well as urging support for a shift to healthier and sustainable diets, with more fruit and veg and less meat produced to better standards. “Studies suggest that farming with organic principles can feed our population and slash farming emissions,” he said. 

“The government’s push to back British farmers is welcome – they must now back British wildlife and healthy diets to deliver a sustainable, secure food system in the UK.” 

Much-needed support gained for local abattoirs

While the bulk of the funding announcements focused on fruit and veg growers, as part of the scheme up to £3m will also be made available for small and mobile abattoirs through the Farming Investment Fund.

This funding “will be vital to help the small abattoirs modernise and thrive,” said Megan Perry, head of policy and campaigns at the Sustainable Food Trust. “Their services are the cornerstone of sustainable, local meat supply chains.” According to the trust, only 49 small red meat abattoirs remain in England, Wales and Scotland, and if closures continue at the current rate, none would be operating by 2030.