“Don’t sleepwalk into food insecurity” expert warns

Posted: 19 February 2024 | | No comments yet

Dr Clive Black highlights the increasing global risks and challenges to food security, emphasising the need for a comprehensive and coordinated national food policy in the UK.

world food

By Dr Clive Black, Vice Chairman of Shore Capital Markets

One does not need to be a genius of current affairs to determine that, sadly, the world is a less stable and secure place, probably since the 1960s.

Indeed, the number of risk factors seem to be elevated and growing rather than receding. Such factors, of course, include more volatile weather, should climate change offend, geo-political tensions (e.g., Sino-American), outright war (Russia’s heinous revisionism and aggression in Ukraine), the unsettling impact of migration with all of the political connotations that go with that, and in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, let not forget biosecurity.

Within this world, the UK has a labyrinth of public bodies that overlap in a myriad of manners, unsurprisingly amongst a number of outcome ills, making food policy coordination difficult, albeit one can reasonably ask the question as to whether the country has any sort of framework whatsoever when it comes to the food policy arena.

A policy priority?

One key segment of food policy is food security, it should at all times be a national priority in truth that embraces bodies like the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Quite whether or not food security, or put more bluntly, the capability to effectively and sustainably feed the nation, is a policy priority and whether or not such thinking is properly organised across the governments of the UK, is not something that strikes me as being in place and if it is, it is not especially evident.

In the UK food policy straddles many Government departments. Indeed, aside from food security, effectively feeding the nation can be, is, a wholly different and major subject matter that is also central to our future health and wellbeing, something that should merit serious thought, policy coordination and implementation from the Cabinet Office to the local General Practice and yet we simply do not.

The UK has been made aware in recent times, albeit perhaps not properly learnt the lessons of the fact, that whilst we are an island we are so not isolated. Food systems represent a huge structure of production, trading, and distribution systems, varied by product category. Those systems are truly global in nature, embracing many of the world’s geographies.

The warning signs

The UK has been blessed with adequate quantities of just about every food type going in recent generations, a position reflecting the notable, structural, increase in food affordability since WWII. Indeed, in a different segment of the food policy orange, many Britons are overconsuming a basket of foodstuffs that is detrimental to their well-being and the nation’s public expenditure requirements.

The UK food system is largely a construct of private capital and thankfully it has been robust meaning that folks do not worry, in the main, about where there next meal is coming from albeit the subject of food poverty is yet another major issue that should be addressed across Government departments. However, we have had a number of shots across the bows that represent warnings signs around food security, which need to be assessed, considered and acted upon on an ongoing basis.

The security of harvests is something that needs consideration as key arable crops – maize, soy and wheat – feed both animals and humans alike. Half of the world’s soya comes from southern Latin America, for example. Weather patterns cannot be controlled but it feels like the world is a couple of sequential harvests away from potential supply shocks, which means higher prices and elevated fraud.

The grain and seeds markets have already faced into the particular challenges brought about in 2022 from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For the UK, this meant a temporary spike in animal feed and milling wheat prices. For much of the Middle East and North Africa, it was a source of material stress and pressure. Thankfully, for the British households, major arable markets have settled in 2023/24 but the spike in and higher rebasing of UK food prices associated with wider energy and labour cost factors was something that did change shopper behaviour, cutting grocery volumes and leading to trading down, whilst even the Prime Minister fretted about the mushrooming price of food in 2023 albeit somewhat crazily calling for voluntary price controls.

UK takes aim at food insecurity at global summit

Another shot across the UK’s food security bows emerged in winter 2023, the arrival of cold weather in Morocco and Spain, corresponding with low wholesale prices in the UK compared to much of the rest of Europe, which meant that British shoppers went short of cucumbers and tomatoes. Not the end of the world, but an outcome that led reasonable people to ask why does the UK government not support the domestic glasshouse industry around energy costs and labour supply, so increasing homegrown output and reducing import dependency.

Responding to alarm bells

Collectively, all of these incidents are warning bells for the UK if global food supply chains fail, become interrupted or hijacked. The UK Government needs to be alive to these alarm bells and think strategically about the security of food supplies through everything from domestic production plans – a huge food policy segment in its own right – international trade agreements, public food procurement strategies (how to feed the NHS?) and the familiarity of society to developments in the food system; where does our food come from, how is it made, what is it worth. Indeed, a programme of proper instruction and education around food would surely lead to the people appreciating what they eat a little more and help overcome the reality that the British do not pay enough for their daily bread if they want it day in, day out.

Food security as an issue, more importantly, also reveals the interconnections in food policy, around agriculture & horticulture, the robustness of production systems, international trade and standards, health & wellbeing and poverty. Each of these important areas need effective coordination best manifested into a proper, grown-up dynamic national food policy, which to me can only be managed with an empowered Minister for the Food System.

Sadly, when things like the reliability of a food system breakdown we see the worst of human nature, evidenced by the buying spree of the few that required rationing to limit wider food shortages at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Let us not sleepwalk into food insecurity.

About the author

Dr Clive BlackDr Clive Black is Vice Chairman of Shore Capital Markets. Clive joined Shore Capital in 2003. After a Ph.D at Queen’s University of Belfast he was Head of Food Policy at the NFU, a strategic planner for Lord Haskins at Northern Foods plc before joining Charterhouse Tilney where he was a No.1 rated consumer analyst, becoming Head of Pan-European retail research at ING. He has been highly ranked in Thomson Extel surveys for many years.