In the bleak midwinter – why the UK’s food security could be at risk

Posted: 21 September 2021 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott has some grim predictions for the UK’s food supply this coming winter and calls on the UK Government to do more to protect the nation from empty shelves and price hikes.

chris' corner

There seems to be much doom and gloom about currently and I’m sadly going to add to it. COVID-19 caused last winter to be something of a hiems horribilis (horrible winter) and due to this continued issue plus several other factors, the coming months could also signal a period we may want to forego.

My real fear is that some of the causes of our impending problems, aside from COVID-19, may increase in severity, creating huge issues to the food security of the nation. Never before in my memory have I observed so many leaders of the UK food industry hand out warning after warning about food shortages, price hikes and the need for government action. I think it is fair to say that I have been doing this for some time and have often been accused of scaremongering. This article isn’t about ‘project fear’ – it’s about ‘project food security’.

One issue is that of gas supplies. We have all seen the reports on the news about massive increases in prices and the knock-on effects to the food industry (specifically the meat industry). It might appear that this suddenly came out of the blue; but of course it didn’t. There were warnings back in 2016 that a hard Brexit deal could leave the UK vulnerable to a gas crisis and around the same time there was a massive shortage of carbon dioxide for the food industry and hospitals due to the nature of how this is produced – ie, a by-product of the fertiliser industry. So, were lessons learned and warnings heeded? Clearly not. What about African Swine Fever? I haven’t heard it mentioned recently but it was considered a major threat just a few years ago. It’s still spreading rapidly and how long is it before it reaches our shores? Have lessons been learned from elsewhere and necessary actions taken?

A need for solutions 

So what do we do about this? I’m sure our National Risk Register is bulging at the seams at the minute with COVID-19, the Afghanistan crisis, climate change and Brexit. Though it certainly should, I somehow doubt the nation’s food security ranks too highly on this register. In my opinion it should and should have for some time. Food prices are going to increase, food shortages are going to get worse. To simply wait for all this to happen and then announce COBRA will sit and develop emergency plans isn’t good enough.

For politicians to appear on our TV screens and talk about ‘global problems’ isn’t good enough either. We need our industry and government working side by side to undertake a full vulnerability assessment of our national food supply. Only then can the development of appropriate policies that will mitigate the worst of what is very likely to come our way emerge. My gut feeling is that this won’t happen; partly due to the complacency that our government specialises in, and partly because it might show that the trade deals being struck will actually be bad for our national food security.

The relationship with our closest neighbours who supply massive amounts of our food hasn’t been so bad since the Napoleonic Wars and we all know what’s to blame for this. So, protecting our national food security may well be a case of ‘not tonight Josephine’.

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