In farming we always say that you reap what you sow. That by tending nature and putting in more than we take out, our crops and our animals will grow to feed our families and that ‘nature’ will care for us. That only by nurturing this natural environment will it keep yielding its bountiful harvest that we collectively give thanks for every October. Only by striving for net positive in all that we do can we keep the balance of nature’s karma in a harmonious place.
Over the past 50 years, our food systems have delivered consumers some of the cheapest and best-quality food in the world. But at what cost? In 2021, ‘food & farming’, the largest of the UK’s manufacturing sectors, is in crisis. As a sector we are now reaping what we have sowed over the past 50 years and the ‘harvest’ is poor.
We see empty shelves in supermarkets, and we are short of many of the critical raw materials that we need to continue to feed the nation. Milk is poured away on farms due to lack of drivers. National supplies of food-preserving ingredients like CO2 are on allocation, packaging prices are soaring, and availability is restricted. Production lines are stopping.
Of course, people will blame Covid and Brexit, like this is some kind of short-term thing that’s just happened over the past year, with no prior warnings.
The reality is somewhat less palatable.
We have built an industry that was propped up by cheap labour from overseas. It now seems we have run out of countries from which to source workers – workers who will perform the essential jobs that we need doing, during hours, and for wages, that our own citizens find unacceptable. We have food businesses across the board that barely make enough profits to keep plants running, let alone invest in the automation needed to replace this labour.
We have farmers that have been paid broadly the same price for their goods since 1980. Many close to retirement age with no younger family fit or desperate enough to work the hundred or so hours a week for a fraction of the living wage in order to make ends meet. Our cheap food system has also depleted the natural capital on our farms and in the environment. Nature is running on empty.
After under-paying lorry drivers and treating them badly in inadequate motorway services or end destinations for years, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are no young people aspiring for a career in driving or that we don’t have enough drivers to service even our basic needs.
We have a ‘just in time’ food management system that is supposedly the leanest and most efficient in the world. The reality of which is barely 12 hours of stock at any level of the food supply chain at any time, meaning food shortages are usually at the mercy of the simplest traffic disruption, let alone any more serious climate event. This system evolved because profits aren’t there to hold any significant level of stock or to warehouse it.
There is no such thing as ‘cheap food’. Certainly, no such thing as cheap food without cost. The costs are being borne by the welfare of our farmers and workers, damage to the environment and irreparable damage to our industry’s critical capacity to service our future food needs. The system is broken, and no one is winning.
So, what to do? There is little point blaming Covid or Brexit: they have just catalysed our simmering problems. Instead, we need to look forward and face up to the reality that our food system is not fit for the future. It won’t feed a rising global population in a climate changing environment. We must change.
We have to start to invest and value the natural capital of the countryside. We have to invest in the grass roots of farming. We have to invest in higher wages throughout our sector. We have to invest in automation that allows the upskilling of people in the rural environment, so that people from the UK want to work in our sector. We have to invest in more food stocks to create resilience throughout the supply chain. In schools we have to educate students about the true cost of food and price it in a way that reflects the true costs involved or it will be no longer available.
Food now makes up a fraction of our monthly outgoings compared with what it was in the 1970s or 1980s. Against all odds, the UK suppliers have continued to fill the shelves with high-quality food that has met the growing standards of the retailers and the food regulators. However, for this to continue, the industry needs to wake up to the fact that margins have become unsustainably thin and to ensure a continued supply of the highest quality, something must change.
Our industry needs to work together through this crisis to deliver a truly sustainable food model that is fit to feed a wealthier world population that will rise to nine billion people. A failing to make these changes will likely mean that UK food shortages are increasingly part of our lives and will almost certainly mean irreparable damage to some of the things we all take for granted: nature, our farms, our countryside and our food supply.