Calls for rethink of food strategy in the UK

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 6th February 2009

The National Farmers Union (NFU) of the UK has endorsed the main findings of a major report released by the influential think tank, Chatham House, which suggested a need for companies to be better prepared for volatility in global food markets.

The report ‘Food Futures: rethinking UK strategy‘ examines the critical challenges facing UK food production in a world of rising food demand and increasing pressure on resources and the environment. It points out weaknesses in UK food supply including low levels of research and development and ingrained short-term thinking of some retailers and manufacturers; all of which pose challenges to the assumption that UK food security is already assured.

The recent spike in food commodity prices underlined the interdependency of countries around the world and demonstrated the political and social importance of affordable food, Chatham House noted. Some of the effects of change are already being felt as access to scarce resources becomes a strategic concern for many countries. These pressures and the market responses they bring could provoke defensive trade and political reactions by governments, disrupting trade.

The report argued for action now to ensure future food supply needs can be met. “The environmental impacts of modern agriculture and of the wider food chain can no longer be ignored,” they warned. “More food will have to be produced, but much more sustainably. Increased public investment in research on agriculture and food will be needed.”

“National and devolved governments must recognize their role as drivers of transformation. The UK government and European Union should be taking a lead – developing a vision for the future and the policies to catalyse that transition,” Chatham House said. “For the consumer, new uncertainties over the affordability of food, along with continuing environmental and health concerns, will mean changes in consumption patterns.”

Commenting on the report, NFU President Peter Kendall said: “This is a thorough and authoritative study into the challenges facing the UK food sector that casts doubt on the belief that our food supply is secure.

“This is a major political issue which has rightly received some substantial attention from Government, academics and the media. However, too often the analysis is focused on the global dimension without proper reflection on what needs to be done at home. A number of pressures, such as greater global competition, protectionism and a slow-down in agricultural productivity, mean the UK cannot afford to take its food supply for granted.

“As the report shows there are concerns about whether we have sufficient production capacity in some key sectors such as milk and fruit. What is more, it illustrates that declining levels of UK investment raise real questions over our ability to maintain a viable domestic agricultural R&D base, or to access technology developed in the EU or globally

“We agree with Chatham House that there is a need to extend to food supply the global awareness of risk and uncertainty that is embedded in security, defence and other sectors. We need better indicators of performance much like the early warning system for food production recommended by the NFU two years ago.

“The report quite rightly questions traditional commercial practices and should be immediate boardroom reading material for food retailers and processors. This is hard evidence of the need for a new paradigm in food retailing that is based on long-term strategic supply chains rather than short-term competition and price cutting.

“I hope that, given the time, research and intellectual clout thrown behind this report, it will be given serious consideration by Government, policy makers and the whole food industry.”

To view the full report please go to: