Feeding the Nation: Once more the job of a British farmer?

Stormy wheatfield

Joe Evans is a non-executive director of food supply chain and procurement experts, allmanhall Ltd. He runs his diversified family estate in Herefordshire and is currently Chairman of the Environment Committee for The Country Land and Business Association. In this blog, Joe floats some headline topics related to food security, environmental farming and changes to land use.

“There’s a reason we subsidised food after the second world war”…

In his recent podcast*, former DEFRA minister Rory Stewart ponders whether he perhaps took for granted the surety of the global food supply chain. When he was in office, his policies pushed land out of food production and into agri-environmental schemes. There was and remains sound thinking around those decisions as the climate emergency is as present as ever. But in the last 20 years, millions of hectares of food producing land have been given over to forestry, rewilding and other havens for nature.

With devastating war suddenly raging on our own continent, risks about availability and price of food and energy which seemed abstract 6 months ago are surely top of mind for anyone involved in food procurement? And that’s as we’re still working through the impact of BREXIT, new trade deals and evolving consumer eating habits.

One doesn’t need to be an industry expert to know that one thing is certain: volatility of price and availability will reign supreme for many months to come.

As someone who runs an organic farm, with an emphasis on delivering environmental good through agri-environmental schemes, I have a front row seat as government and industry leaders wrestle with the tensions of feeding the world, restoring the peace and reversing climate change.

Brown Cows in barn

…but for now, we’ll pay you to NOT grow food

By 2025 English taxpayers will not subsidise farmers for producing food (Wales and Scotland are still working on their plans). Farmers will instead be paid to deliver public benefits such as diverse habitats, cleaner water, fresher air and carbon sinks. The government has not designated food production as a public good. In the short-term, many livestock farmers might survive despite this change in support focus. Food prices are set to be high this year and this will provide further opportunity for the Treasury to carry on with their plan to phase out area payments. However, for major arable operators, fertilisers are so expensive this year that many farmers will be forced to buy less. This will reduce yields, which in turn push up unit prices, but won’t necessarily give farmers a better bottom-line. I still foresee significant industry consolidation with many farmers leaving the industry.

England’s Green and Pleasant Carbon Sinks

The carbon market is yet to become accessible to the mainstream farmer for trading. We all know it’s coming, but the science is complicated. However, big business is making big bold plays on land that holds value as carbon sinks, but less for food production (e.g. moorland and upland pasture). This is having a disrupting factor as large estates are suddenly managed without food production being valued as a long-term goal. The implication of this disruption will be further reduction in domestic food production and an increasing reliance open international food trade corridors. It will be a political judgement call as to the “pecking order” of food security vs. climate mitigation. Both are possible, but there is an inherent tension. Food security is a whole, highly complex topic on its own and one I will address in another blog.

Why is all this relevant to foodservice operators? Does it matter?

In short, yes! It is my view that despite living in an era of mega-connectivity, convenience and consumer power, food will become less “commoditised”.  We know that the next generation care more about the environmental impact that their eating choices have.  Forward-thinking procurement services will create transparent food supply chains. This is the approach being taken by allmanhall. It will help foodservice operators understand the dimensions of provenance and method of production as well as price and availability. The pressures on UK farmers mean that the winners will become increasingly niche, focussing on low input, high welfare, ethical and environmentally sustainable farming. This will make UK food more expensive.  

But perhaps we’ll all realise that the alternatives may well cost the Earth.

For more on sustainability in food supply, take a look here.

*The Rest is Politics, 23 March 2022

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