No food security without resilience

Dr Charlie Taverner on why we need to push beyond food security and talk more about resilience.

2nd April 2024

The blast of tractor horns outside Parliament last Monday night signalled the rise of food security on the political agenda. Farmers staged a go-slow protest that reduced London’s traffic to a crawl, following the lead of their colleagues in Wales and elsewhere. Emblazoned on the protestors’ placards were calls to protect British farmers and reduce the UK’s reliance on imported food.

The government tried to show that it was listening. Just a few hours earlier, Defra unveiled a cap on how much land English farms could place into certain environmental options, such as planting winter bird food or pollen and nectar flower mixes. This tweak was announced with a carefully worded headline: ‘Government ensures food production remains primary purpose of farming’.

This attention on food security is heartening. For a long time, campaigners and academics have been urging politicians to actively ensure that all of society has access to enough safe and healthy food. In the last few years, Britain’s exit from the EU, the Covid pandemic, and price spikes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have reminded us just how fragile the food supply really is in a country that’s only 60% self-sufficient.

That’s why it’s good that the government is now talking regularly about these issues and supporting more sustainable, home-grown production. At the NFU conference in February, the prime minister promised to launch an annual Food Security Index and make last year’s Farm to Fork summit an annual event. Labour has also made this a priority. At a debate on the subject in March, shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner said, ‘Food security is absolutely a matter of national security’. Liberal Democrats, such as Sarah Dyke and Tim Farron, have raised the matter repeatedly too.

Valuable as this attention has been, we need to think hard about what we’re aiming for. The topic of the FFCC’s latest Farming Leadership Group symposium was particularly timely. Speaking freely under the Chatham House Rule, participants debated whether we need to push beyond food security and talk more about resilience. A resulting working paper will be published in the coming weeks.

A narrow view of food security tries to maximize production in the short term as a way of avoiding immediate risks (the policy has its roots in national defence). For farms, that means boosting yields, stressing efficiency, and specializing in a handful of products; for processors and supermarkets, that means developing sprawling, just-in-time supply chains controlled by a few big players; for households, that means eating what’s affordable and convenient.

The trouble with this goal is that the risks our food system faces are increasingly impossible to fend off. Climate change is the most worrying. It’s turning what were once occasional weather events, such as blazing summers and ferocious storms, into regular disasters. British farmers have just suffered one of the wettest winters in decades. Autumn-sown crops have rotted, while drilling and other field work has been pushed back and back. AHDB forecasts the amount of UK land planted with wheat to fall 15% in 2024. This could lead to the smallest wheat harvest in 20 years. It’s little wonder that many growers have chosen to pull large parcels of land from production and put them into environmental measures like those Defra just capped. Farming businesses need financial stability and these schemes offer guaranteed income.

Shrinking harvests are a real threat to food security, but focusing on production will not shield us from global shocks. Nor will it solve the tangled problems of our food system. Around 15% of UK households are suffering from food insecurity, according to the latest Food Foundation tracker. They are struggling to get hold of enough nutritious food, which is worsening the issues of inequality and poor health and putting more pressure on public finances. Protecting UK-grown food or driving down prices with cheap imports will not necessarily help people who already can’t afford to eat well.

That’s why it’s so important that our food system becomes more resilient. It’s a lofty word, but boils down to the idea that we should anticipate problems and be able to adapt in a positive, creative way. In concrete terms, building resilience means changing how we farm, from embracing more sustainable, regenerative or nature friendly approaches to shifting what food we grow and when and where works best. Crucially, it also means changes beyond farming. A resilient food system has transparent supply chains based on trust, reciprocity, and a diverse network of local infrastructure. It helps households to eat less heavily processed food, reduce their waste, and find quality, affordable produce. It needs all tiers of government to link food and farming to their plans for climate, nature, and growth, and make more considered decisions about how we put the country’s land to the multiple uses we require.

In a general election year, it’s encouraging to see food security in the conversation. But we have to be aware that the problems of food, nature, climate, and inequality are interlinked. Maintaining the status quo is not enough. We should be pushing political leaders to lay out a bold vision of a fairer, more adaptable food system that works for all people as well as nature. They need to commit to long-term, substantial funding that will help farmers change their businesses radically. And they should empower local and regional governments to reflect the specific needs of their communities.

It's a simple message: the UK’s food system will only be secure if we make it more resilient.