As the war in Ukraine threatens to push global food prices up by another 20% on top of last month’s highs, the ‘era of complacency’ over well-stocked supermarket shelves is over.

Or so warned James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food and Drink, in a report in The Times yesterday about Scotland’s plan to press ahead with rewilding despite mounting fears over food security.

According to The Times article, Scottish farmers want to grow crops on land set aside for rewilding – but their requests were turned down by biodiversity minister Lorna Slater, who said she wouldn’t let the looming food crisis distract her from addressing Scotland’s “nature emergency”.

It’s a conundrum ministers in Westminster will also no doubt be grappling with. The NFU warned in January Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) would “result in reduced UK food production”.

Which, in the light of warnings over global food shortages as a result of the war in Ukraine, doesn’t seem like the best idea right now.

Shoppers are already facing shortages of sunflower oils on shelves, and there are fears global wheat and maize supplies could also be hit if the conflict continues, despite Ukraine’s insistence the country’s crops will be sown as usual this year.

There are also concerns over UK food production, with farmers reportedly now facing rationing of fertiliser as Russian sanctions hit availability.

Even if fertiliser isn’t rationed, costs have already rocketed, which is adding to the profitability crisis in farming. In January, we reported the average farm in England was making just £22,800 in net profit without subsidies – raising fears over the sustainability of many businesses should Defra get the delivery of the ELMS scheme wrong.

And that was before the war in Ukraine. 

According to a separate report in The Times this weekend, the profitability crisis is now so bad that dairy farmers are slaughtering their herds due to cash flow shortages. 

It’s not just farmers who could go out of business as a result of spiralling costs. 2 Sisters CEO Ronald Kers warned last week suppliers were also under threat. “This conflict brings a major threat to food security in the UK and there is no doubt the outcome of this is that consumers will suffer as a result,” he warned.

Elsewhere in the world, governments are already taking action to protect their citizens from food shortages. Take Ireland, which is planning to force farmers to grow grain, a move that would divert them away from export-orientated production.

Indeed, while food inflation is now inevitable, more could – and should – be done to prevent food shortages in the UK.

But should that include abandoning what has been described by George Eustice as “the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years”?

It’s hard to say. As Andrew Kuyk, director general at Provision Trade Federation, pointed out last week, “a basic tenet of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising our ability to meet the needs of generations to come.”

With climate change just as much of a threat to the world (albeit a less immediate one), abandoning environmental aims and reverting to a purely production-orientated model would come with its own, fairly significant, risks.

But at the same time, ministers can’t ignore the looming food crisis. At the very least, they must ensure ELMS is delivered effectively, without further compromising the production and profitability of UK farms.

They must also listen carefully to the UK food sector about what else could be done to protect the supply chain and improve domestic food security. Which, dare I say it again, most likely includes a comprehensive National Food Strategy.

For now, Defra is playing down warnings over UK food supplies. When asked whether the Ukraine situation would result in changes to ELMS policy, a government spokesman told The Grocer: “Overall we import a very low amount of foodstuffs from Eastern Europe, with the majority of grains, meat, dairy and eggs produced in the UK, so we do not expect any significant direct impact on UK food supply.

“We are in regular contact with farmers, traders, manufacturers and food retailers to understand the impacts of global events on supply chains and we continue to champion food production, supporting farmers to produce a wide variety of nutritious food.”

But if shortages do appear in supermarkets, ministers will soon find themselves with some serious questions to answer. As Withers said, the era of complacency is over. And that doesn’t just stand for shoppers, but for policy-makers too.