However it is now, as we navigate the energy crisis, we face into the biggest threat to our national food security, and we can’t afford not to act.
We are grateful that so far government has recognised this urgent peril and stepped in. The Energy Bill Relief Scheme has proved to be a lifeline for thousands of businesses across the food chain. There really was no alternative – the price shock that emerged this year would have collapsed supply chains this winter.
What ministers do next is make or break. We expect the scheme to be scaled down dramatically, not because of any expected resolution of the energy crisis but because government is under immense pressure to limit spending. The chancellor’s autumn statement emphasised there will be “a high bar” for the provision of any support beyond March 2023.
As I write, government is reviewing how far the scheme will go in helping households and businesses. We don’t expect clarity until Christmas on which types of business will be eligible from April 2023, or what that relief will look like in practice.
It is vital the food sector works together to be heard. Our shared objective must be to ensure ministers recognise three key things.
Firstly, the farm operations, manufacturing facilities, warehouse and transport operations of the food chain are critical infrastructure upon which the nation depends. We can’t allow them to fail any more than we can our hospitals, schools and emergency services. The consequences are obvious for everyone.
Secondly, it is not right to assume the energy crisis will be less intense once we get through this winter. Producing, storing and distributing fresh and frozen foods at consistent, reliably low temperatures is always an energy-intensive process, and it works hardest in the summer.
Lastly, high energy prices are at the root of food price inflation. The National Farmers Union warned MPs earlier this month it is not just the price of food on the shelf today that is under pressure. Our farmers and manufacturers are actively taking steps to produce less, and it is entirely rational for them to respond to punitive input prices by doing so. The consequences will be shortages, higher prices, and less choice.
If we are to be successful in our call, we must also show awareness and proactivity. It is not in government’s interest to support an industry that is not taking steps to help itself. We must show we know high and volatile energy prices are the market reality for the foreseeable future and respond accordingly.
Businesses can take steps to use less energy without losing productivity by improving the insulation of buildings, and promoting better awareness of energy efficiency across the workforce. We can make investments that will enable us to generate and store more energy for ourselves. The best actions to insulate ourselves from the effects of high energy prices are the same as those we must take to play our part in achieving the net zero transition.
The old maxim is ‘do not waste a crisis’. If we can convince government to continue to play its part, we can emerge from this period with a more resilient, cost-effective supply chain that is better prepared for the opportunities and threats not just of today, but for generations to come.