Food Security? For whom & for how long?

Sue Pritchard asks, who will be speaking for public value at the No 10 Food Security Summit?

15th May 2023

Of course, I wanted to be at the No 10 Food Security Summit. I lead an organisation helping shape fairer and more sustainable food systems. I want to be at the table where decisions are made. But this isn’t just FOMO: I’d be happy to see any permutation of expert leaders in civil society or food systems change there, knowing they would come with a balancing range of ‘public value’ perspectives on potential solutions to our current problems. From the information available so far, it doesn’t look as though many of those independent voices have been invited.

The issues for national and global food security go far beyond a confidence-boosting trade show

According to a government spokesperson: “Our UK Farm to Fork summit will bring together government and representatives from across the food supply chain to step up cooperation and promote all elements of our world-renowned farming and food industries. The event will look at how we can champion UK food and drink both at home and abroad by boosting confidence, helping more businesses to invest in domestic production, and supporting the long-term resilience and sustainability of the UK food sector.” That’s fine. But the issues for national and global food security go far beyond a confidence-boosting trade show.

Food and farming are at the nexus of the biggest challenge of our generation - the triple crisis of climate, nature and the rising costs of diet related ill health. Food and farming have always been vulnerable to fluctuations, shocks, stresses, supply chain disruptions and price rises. Now we are seeing many directly caused or made worse by climate change and nature loss. The government’s own 2021 Food Security Report said: “The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity”.

Food production has become consolidated in a small number of global agribusinesses who control food from seed to plate

This government has placed its faith in markets to solve these problems. Of course, business is a critical player in tackling them. But let’s be clear. The triple crisis is a massive demonstration of market failure. Food production has become consolidated in a small number of global agribusinesses who control food from seed to plate. These businesses prioritise profit and shareholder returns, within the law. But the regulatory and legislative guardrails are now inadequate to the task, and we see the effects all round us: polluted rivers, dirty beaches, deforestation in critical ecosystems, crashing nature, rising global temperatures, increasing risks from fires, drought and flooding, spiralling diet related illnesses, rising inequalities where 1 in 8 people cannot afford to buy enough healthy food… Meanwhile – at this critical moment - farmers are starting to leave the sector in despair. On average, they receive only around 9 pence for every food pound spent and 45% of UK farmers earn less than £20,000 a year. At the same time, 6.9 billion meals worth of food is wasted every year, while certain foods are being rationed in supermarkets. All these market failures – and the resultant costs to taxpayers – are an inevitable consequence of successive governments policies for cheap food, and businesses’ choice of operating models in that framework.

But here’s the thing. We’re not short of solutions to the problems. Decades of research, reports and analysis have alerted us to these growing crises and made practical suggestions for government and business action. On the ground, there are important initiatives happening on farms and communities – people adapting their businesses for the future. That they are doing this in the context of a fragile and inconsistent policy context, and contradictory market signals is testament to their personal resilience and leadership. What they need to “boost confidence, … invest in domestic production, and support long-term resilience and sustainability” are a consistent policy framework that benefits small, medium sized and community-led enterprises, market incentives for regenerative and nature friendly farming, and the same support that big business gets from government.

The government even commissioned its own inquiry for a National Food Strategy - and promptly parked it in the too-hard box. Why would they do this? The straight answer is this. Business looks after its own interests, and lobbies government hard to moderate the pace of change, and at worst, actively oppose changes that disadvantage them. “It’s complicated”, they say. “The science isn’t clear, the research is contested.” “We’re only doing what our customers want.” “You don’t want to be the government that puts prices up, do you…?” While on the one hand, business leaders say they recognise that things need to change, and are starting to put in place mitigations, on the other hand, they quietly carry on business as usual, because that is what works for them and their shareholders.

Can you really describe yourself as committed to regenerative farming, if the products of that farming are going straight into foods that damage health?

It’s invidious to pick out any particular business, given the scale of the problems, but sometimes naming the specifics helps illustrates the point. Cargill, one of the four biggest commodities businesses in the world, is the name behind the cheap chicken production system that provides the £3 chicken in a supermarket, or the chicken nugget in your ready meal. They have consolidated their production systems in one small area in Herefordshire and Powys, because it is more efficient for them to supply and source products. It is also one of the sectors that has been implicated in the massive rise in phosphate pollution that has desecrated the River Wye, an iconic and important river ecosystem. Efficient and profitable for Cargill – who saw revenues rise 23% to $163bn last year. Devastating for the river, and the businesses and communities that rely on it.  A straightforward ‘polluter pays’ policy will ensure that the costs are fully borne by those who – for their own profit – damage the ecosystem on which we all depend.

Why are we focusing on trying to secure a food system to provide ever cheaper food - but which floods our shops and streets with ultra-processed food?

A couple of years ago Nestle revealed to its board that 67% of its product lines were categorically unhealthy, according to WHO definitions. Facing the truth is a good start. Nestle is now investing in regenerative farming, paying farmers a premium for adopting more sustainable practices. But can you really describe yourself as committed to regenerative farming, if the products of that farming are going straight into foods that damage health? Just two weeks ago, Nestle launched a new breakfast cereal - basically a chocolate biscuit in spoon size. And they advertised this on the packet as “delicious and nutritious” - because they'd fortified it with a few vitamins.  The outcry on social media (Henry Dimbleby cutting to the chase with “FFS Nestle!”) was enough to change the packet. But the product is still on the shelves. Forcing reformulation, banning advertising of junk food to children and taxing ultra processed foods would make it less attractive for businesses to invest in developing and marketing these product lines.

Now, however, the war in Ukraine and unstable weather in food producing regions, have prompted real concerns about growing global food (and fuel) security. It has pushed price rises and scarcity in the UK and is adding to an already desperate situation in already unstable regions of the globe.

These serious and urgent global pressures are driving calls for more intensification of farming in certain areas of the UK.

But a ‘Business-as-Usual on acid’ approach risks creating even greater problems in short order. Contrary to commonly held assumptions, the Chatham House report, ‘Scrutinising Assumptions’ demonstrates that intensifying farming to meet demand simply risks driving ever more demand, which in turn uses more scarce resources, creates more waste and drives up the value of land, making it less likely that this land can be protected - a lose-lose for nature and climate. Their conclusions make clear that it is values-based ideas, such as the role of markets, the role and responsibilities of the state, and the likelihood of dietary change, which have a huge influence on coming to better decisions about what, where and how food is produced.

So why are we focusing on trying to secure a food system to provide ever cheaper food – but which floods our shops and streets with ultra-processed food, harming public health on a massive scale, causing NHS overwhelm, damaging the planet, and forcing UK farmers out of farming?

Or should we be asking: “Food security, for whom, and for how long?”

What would a secure, resilient and fair food system really look like? It requires whole system reforms, from seed to plate. The Consensus on Food and Farming, produced by a group of farming, nature and civil society organisations, experts and academics, in January, demonstrates growing alignment behind a fairly funded, comprehensive transition plan. In another joint statement in December last year, leading businesses, financial institutions, farmers, NGOs, and civil society organisations joined together to back a properly funded ELMs as the cornerstone of a resilient and secure food system.

Citizens tell us that they want government to take food seriously

Above all, food security must be understood in the context of a fair and sustainable food system. For too many people, food insecurity isn’t about whether they can get hold of strawberries in January, but about whether they can afford or even find any decent food at all, relying on the cheapest, ultra-processed, unhealthy food or the charity of food banks. It should shock us all that in a wealthy country like the UK, the biggest growth sector in the last ten years is the exponential rise in the need for food banks and food charity. The money raised from taxing damaging businesses could be directed towards providing free and healthy school meals, targeted support to people who need it, local and community-led food projects instead of food banks, designed and tailored to shift towards dignified, healthy and resilient solutions.  

We work with many of the people who are in the room at No 10 – leaders of industry, membership groups and government. The good leaders tell me they want to be part of the solutions. They want better regulation, better legislation to level the playing field for a fairer system, they want to help create the conditions for real and sustainable change. It is what their customers want too. In the ´food and farming’ section in last month’s People’s Plan for Nature, the report from a Citizens Assembly, members proposed, among other things,

  • A national conversation about food 
  • All retailers and food processors must be transparent about the real impacts of their supply chains
  • Stop producing food with negative impacts on nature, climate and health

Citizens tell us over and again that they want and expect their governments to act to protect nature, climate, health, wellbeing and a fair society. They want government to take food seriously. Food is absolutely central to our life; and yet the way food is produced at present is profoundly implicated in the climate, nature and health crisis. It is a false dichotomy that we have to choose between tackling these crises and food security. This cannot be fixed by the market alone.

If we fix can fix food, we can fix the planet

We need: 

  1. a serious, well-resourced transition plan for food and farming based on agroecology, which engages all government departments, and which gives farmers the right signals and the resources to deliver BOTH healthy and sustainable food production, and climate and nature adaptation.
  2. government to use regulation and legislation wisely and effectively, to level the playing field, so it is good business to do the right thing for climate, nature and health, and increasingly difficult, expensive or illegal to damage them.
  3. minimum core environmental and animal welfare standards to ensure that progress in the UK isn’t undercut by food produced to lower costs and lower standards overseas.

This meeting must be just a first step in bringing public value back to the heart of joined up food policy. As one of my farming heroes, Andy Cato says, if we can fix food, we can fix the planet.