Farmers throwing in the towel amid rising costs and labor shortages and declining domestic production of some foods have resulted in repeated gaps on British supermarket shelves – more which angered the shoppers.
UK agriculture has spent years navigating the fallout from Brexit and the pandemic at a time when squeezed consumers are reassessing what they can afford to put in their baskets.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which represents the interests of around 55,000 farmers across England and Wales, announced the availability of the food summit convened by Rishi Sunak this week at 10 Downing Street as a victory
The impetus for the movement is clear: recent years have brought crises, from pigs trapped in farms due to a shortage of abattoir workers, to millions of pounds worth of crops left to rot. on farms amid a lack of seasonal workers, to egg producers who pack. during a record outbreak of avian flu.
This year saw the NFU report a 40-year low in domestic salad production, while egg production fell to its weakest level in nine years by 2022.
Against this backdrop, Tuesday’s gathering will bring together representatives of farmers and food and retail trade bodies, along with some of Britain’s biggest supermarket bosses, to discuss the government’s intention to boost cooperation throughout the supply chain and support the stability of the food sector.
The exact list of guests remains under wraps, giving way to speculation that television presenter and celebrity farmer Jeremy Clarkson, whose attempts to grow food on his Cotswolds farm Diddly Squat have been documented in one TV series, also received an invitation to No 10.
The president of the NFU, Minette Batters, pushed the prime minister to lead a food summit, which she wants to hold every year, since she promised to build the event in the 2022 Conservative party leadership race.
The union said it wanted “action not words”, calling on ministers to commit to ensuring the proportion of food produced domestically at the current 60%, along with the introduction of a statutory reporting duty at the production level. It also asked the government to use the powers of the Agriculture Act to make supply chains fair.
Many farmers were already struggling before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw a surge in the cost of their necessities, known as the three Fs – feed, fuel and fertilizer – forcing many to produce food. to lose.
Cynics say stubbornly high inflation – driven in part by food and drink prices rising 19.1% in the year to March, according to the Office for National Statistics – may be forcing the government to the meeting will be held, especially after the prime minister has done so. Halving inflation is one of his five promises to be achieved by the end of the year.
The Conservatives will also know that Labor has stepped into traditional Tory territory. The opposition leader, Keir Starmer, pledged at the NFU’s annual conference in February that under his government, half of all food bought by the public sector would be produced locally and sustainably.
The problems of relying on foreign imports for salad items such as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, which are brought into the UK from warmer climates during the cold months, were also exposed earlier this year, when the bad weather in Spain and Morocco led to gaps in the shelves and supermarkets. impose limits on how much shoppers can buy.
Experts blame the food shortage on the government’s approach, which has been described as “leave it to Tesco et al”, relying on supermarket supply chains to keep the shelves stocked, rather than helping suppliers with rising costs. .
Few of those attending Tuesday’s summit will be skeptical about the pressures on the food supply chain. Producers, processors and retailers alike have margins squeezed amid rising costs and a tight labor market. However, it is not clear what can be achieved by bringing together groups with, arguably, competing interests. Everyone wants to keep their slice of the pie.
One way to convince farmers not to give up is to get consumers to pay for their food – but few will find that a good idea in a cost-of-living crisis, especially a prime minister looking at his chances of re-election.