The Food Security Index: Is the DEFRA glass half full?

Posted: 6 June 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott explains why he believes the UK Government’s first ‘Food Security Index’ and a recent Downing Street food summit mark positive steps, but comprehensive food security policy is still lacking.

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By Professor Chris Elliott

The UK Government has now published it’s first ‘Food Security Index’ and the Prime Minister hosted the second food summit at Downing Street. It would be crass not to welcome both of these as positive steps. But we are a very long way from having a national food security policy and having a Minister of State for the Food System. I have long called for the first of these and the very wise Dr Clive Black from Shore Capital has clearly articulated the need for the second of these in a recent article for New Food. 

In terms of the summit, as expected, there was lots of positivity from Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of the UK, about UK food and farming and how much he values it and the importance he places on the sectors although we have heard similar statements from him about the NHS, a subject matter that has sparked discussion in the UK. However, it should be noted that the UK finally has a Prime Minister who is taking food security into consideration.

In terms of the index; it is a barometer based on nine different criteria and in reality it’s more about global food production and availability than anything on a national basis. The UK, like virtually every other country, is highly dependent on the availability and pricing of multiple food commodities on international markets and the data shows some improved degree of stability following the pandemic and on-going war in Ukraine. I would concur with this view but would like to point out it is a very short-term view as risks of multiple shocks to the global food supply system abound. Of these by far climate change is the greatest risk. This is referred to several times in the report, but in my opinion is being rather downplayed as ‘long term’ and something we will need to deal with eventually.  A bit like my view of net zero in a way; hugely important down the line but not just as important currently. Of course the converse is true; massive efforts are needed immediately to deal with the catastrophic impact climate will have on food availability.

There are a number of striking statements in the report that from my point of view to the DEFRA authors having a very ‘half full glass’ approach to food security. For example: ’The UK’s ability to trade internationally supports diversified supply and stability. Ten countries provided 69 percent of all UK imports in 2023’. Is having only 10 countries provide over two thirds of the food we import really that reassuring? Not in my onion. Another example is ‘Domestic food production is not necessarily independent of global supply chains since production can be reliant on global inputs at the farming and the processing stages’.  To me, this is government speak for stating that actually we are highly vulnerable to a wide range of issues that might arise globally in terms of having a resilient national food supply. The UK food industry is embarking on an important project to map the multiple points of failure that may hit then down the line. Let’s hope the DEFRA team get to read and analyse this piece of work.

‘Stress-testing’ Europe’s food system

The only real reference to what is going on in the UK is the last of the nine indicators  ‘Consumer confidence in food supply chain actors’ and it does appear that the public has a lot of confidence in the delivery of safe and sufficient food by the agriculture and food sectors.  This is not surprising as both sectors are fantastic in what they do to try and ensure this is the case. I fear it might be like the passengers on the Titanic trusting the crew of the ship prior to hitting a highly unexpected and lethal iceberg….

I believe the data from the UK farming industry is much more bleak in terms of confidence and, in my view, a more realistic measure in terms of food security. You don’t have to take this word from me.  The President of the National Farmers Union, Tom Bradshaw, has warned that UK food production is likely to drop next year due to the impacts of climate change and government policies. So how complacent should we actually be and in particular the government when such alarm bells are being sounded on the good ship Britain?

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