PM Rishi Sunak is to hold crisis talks with farming and supermarket bosses later this month, as fears over inflation and its impact on food production drive calls for government intervention in the supply chain.
What has been billed by industry sources as the ‘Sunak Summit’ is due to take place in Westminster on 16 May.
Although the exact agenda is being kept a closely guarded secret by No 10, sources told The Grocer the meeting was likely to cover demands by the NFU for major new government commitments to boost home-grown food production, and calls to address the balance of power between growers and the big retailers.
Sunak agreed to hold a summit after facing demands at an NFU event held in December.
It is understood the meeting was originally due to be held in the second half of this year, but has been brought forward amid the continuing surge in food inflation.
The latest BRC-NIQ Shop Price figures showed fresh food inflation up nearly 18% in March, the highest rate on record, although supermarket bosses have fiercely denied accusations they are exploiting the cost of living crisis.
The NFU has called for measures including commitments to support farmers in future trade deals, setting targets for UK-based production to secure food security, and a major campaign to advertise UK food and drink.
“This could be a hugely important moment for the industry,” one source told The Grocer.
“It comes with UK food producers facing massive geopolitical issues, including uncertainty over the conflict in Ukraine, at the same time as we are in the middle of a retail price war.
“There is huge nervousness over what is going to happen with inflation and we are entering into a period which could have severe consequences for the future of the industry.
“Whereas during the pandemic the issue was all about food supply, the big issue now is food production and how we ensure food security for the UK.”
Head of sustainable farming at Sustain Vicki Hird said: “The agricultural sector has been under huge stress from increased energy, input and labour costs. This has been borne out in empty shelves.
“Our recent Unpicking Food Prices report showed farmers often receive less than 1% of the profit from their produce, and coupled with unreasonable specification and delivery demands, it’s clear we need supply chain fairness covered too.
“The PM and NFU president need to discuss tougher regulation to help redress the imbalance of power between farmers, intermediaries and the supermarkets.
“This should cover maintaining the Groceries Code Adjudicator, new, legally binding, supply chain codes of practice, more transparent labelling and ideally an action plan to increase the market share of shorter and farmer-focused supply chains.
“The UK’s future food security will need public investment in localised agrifood enterprise and infrastructure, such as sorting, drying and food hubs and a fairer deal for farmers.”
However, there was also anger among some groups at the lack of transparency over the event.
“Considering this is imminent, it’s quite frankly staggering that most people are still in the dark over exactly what’s on the agenda,” said one source.