Britain at risk of becoming country that can’t feed itself

    WORLD  08 December 2022 - 20:52

    The Telegraph has published an article arguing that Britain could slide into a food crisis in the coming months as it becomes unable to feed itself amid rising prices, labor shortages and the effects of a summer drought. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    December is normally a time of plenty, with tables creaking under the weight of mince pies, Christmas puddings, roast Turkeys, sprouts, cheese boards, clementines, chestnuts and more.

    This year, however, the cupboard looks worryingly bare.

    Britain is at risk of “sleepwalking” into a food supply crisis unless the Government takes urgent action, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has warned.

    Surging costs, labour shortages and a summer drought have crippled farms up and down the country, leaving many facing a lean year ahead.

    For poultry farmers, there’s the added headache of flocks being thinned by the worst avian flu outbreak on record. Eggs are already being rationed in some supermarkets.

    This may just be the start. We will start to see more gaps on shelves next year, farmers warn, with tomatoes, cucumbers and pears most at risk given the large amounts of power needed to grow them.

    This is not just a case of fewer salads on sale. The farming sector is in crisis. Soaring costs will put many players out of business and make Britain more dependent on expensive and unreliable imports at a time when international competition for food is growing.

    The roots of the current crisis can be traced back to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    Trade with the “breadbasket of Europe” has been disrupted, driving up demand for grains globally with knock on effects for animal feed.

    Soaring power prices are also pummelling fertiliser production, which is an energy-intensive pursuit. Shortages drive the price higher for farmers.

    Finally, working on the land requires tractors and other red diesel-powered machinery. As with almost all fossil fuels, the price of red diesel has shot up since the start of the war.

    Across agriculture, costs have jumped by a third over the last 12 months according to Government data, with fertiliser, feed and energy the biggest contributors.

    These averages smooth over sometimes more dramatic price rises. Ian Hall, farming director at East Anglian-based carrot growers Tompsett, says that its diesel bill has doubled and fertiliser and electricity costs have tripled. Labour costs are also climbing as shortages of seasonal workers – a persistent problem since Brexit – continue to drag on.

    While many of the problems buffeting the sector are not unique to the UK, that does not mean we don’t have serious problems.

    Farmers operate on thin margins and are left with no choice but to push through higher prices. Food inflation hit 12.4pc in October, according to the British Retail Consortium.

    However, even these eye-watering increases are not enough to cover rising costs. Input prices for agriculture – the cost of everything needed to get food from farm to plate – have risen by 26pc in the 12 months to September, while the price of produce is only 17pc higher. In short, most farms are losing money. The industry as a whole is in the red for the first time in years.

    Producers are struggling to pass on the true cost of inflation because of the power of supermarkets and large food producers who are queasy about angering their customers. Generations of British shoppers have been raised on affordable prices, often to the detriment of producers. It is a tough habit to break.

    Faced with this dynamic, many farmers are simply cutting back: higher costs mean smaller crops, herds or flocks, or simply abandoning produce that isn’t profitable.

    “If we can't make any money out of it, looking forward, what's the point in growing it?” says Hall, whose farm also grows parsnips and onions. “If we're going to lose too much money, we're not going to grow it.”

    Thus, a supply crunch looms.

    As this crisis hoves into view, Grant Shapps, the Business Minister, has been too busy to meet with NFU, according to its president Minette Batters. It is a decision that will no doubt come back to haunt him – at best it will look foolish, at worst a dereliction of duty.

    The Government is aware of the problem, highlighting issues caused by the war in Ukraine in its national Food Strategy published over summer. But its response amounted to little more than lip service: promises to consult with the industry on long-term solutions on issues such as CO2 shortages and pointing to a paltry Government package announced in March that stretches the definition of support.

    Instead, the substance of the Food Strategy dealt with reducing the sector's carbon footprint, solving the long-term issue of worker supply, encouraging healthier eating habits at source and making post-Brexit trade deals work for Britain’s farmers.

    These are all worthy causes but do nothing to address the acute problems of today: it is a prescription for tackling obesity for a patient suffering a heart attack.

    The Government must find urgent and meaningful solutions to the problem of surging costs to avoid lasting damage being done to our agricultural sector.

    Britain currently produces 75pc of its food domestically, but that level will fall without a plan to protect our farmers. The consequences of failure will be increasing levels of malnutrition, more people going hungry as prices rise and a more vulnerable Britain on the world stage. Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, said last week that food was “part of our critical national security.”

    “Unless we pay serious and thorough attention to our food security, we risk being increasingly subject to global shocks,” Baroness Manningham-Buller said. “We need to acknowledge that we should produce as much of our own food as possible and to be able to export what we can, both for growth in the UK economy and to help feed the world.”

    Russia’s blockade of key grain export ports in Ukraine shows that Moscow is not above starving the world to get what it wants.

    Without action, Britain will become a country that cannot feed itself. We will pay the price for that shortcoming in a myriad of other ways.

    Caliber.Az

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