Table of contents
- 1. Relationship between health and food supply: Hungry for change?
- 2. Data on food and agriculture in the UK and its relationship with health
- 3. Current challenges facing the UK agri-food sector
- 4. Government policy response: 2020 obesity strategy
- 5. 2021 UK Food Security Report
- 6. 2022 UK Food Strategy
- 7. Read more
On 7 July 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat) to move that this House takes note of the relationship between improving the overall health of the nation and food production.
1. Relationship between health and food supply: Hungry for change?
1.1 House of Lords Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment 2020 report
In 2020, in its report ‘Hungry for Change’, the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee examined the relationship between food supply and health in the UK.
The committee contended that the UK’s food system—the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food—is “failing”. It said that for many people, food is the source of considerable anxiety, with significant numbers of people being unable to access the food they need, “let alone access a healthy diet”. The committee noted the impact on the NHS of treating diet-related obesity and non-communicable diseases related to diet. Recent statistics on this point are provided in section 2 of this briefing.
The committee further argued that industries, manufacturers, retailers and the food services sector, perpetuate the demand for less healthy, highly processed products. Not only impacting on public health but inhibiting efforts to produce food in an environmentally sustainable way, with farmers “trapped in a cycle where there is not enough emphasis or incentive on the need for healthy, environmentally sustainable produce”. Noting the value of the food and farming sectors to the UK economy, it said these were powerful levers available to improve public health that were not being utilised.
The committee argued the lack of a unifying government ambition or strategy on food has prevented interrelated issues such as hunger, health and sustainability from being considered in parallel, meaning that opportunities had been missed to develop coherent policies that could affect widespread change.
The committee made a wide range of recommendations, including that:
- The government should commit to detailed and routine monitoring of the levels of food insecurity.
- The government should undertake a full assessment of the cost of a healthy and sustainable diet, and cost of the government’s dietary guidance should be built in as a reference point to consideration of government interventions, including those relating to welfare and public food provision.
- The Healthy Start scheme should be reformed, and the value of health start vouchers uprated. The allowance allocated to schools for free school meals should also be uprated. In addition, monitoring and evaluation of the school food standards should be centrally coordinated to ensure consistent compliance.
- The government should step up its efforts to encourage the food industry to reformulate its products to reduce harmful levels of salt, sugar and unhealthy types of fats.
- Future agricultural policy should aim to balance food production with the protection of health and the environment.
- The government should clarify its vision for a healthy, sustainable diet, and set out a clear path towards achieving this.
- The government should stand by its commitment that new free trade agreements will maintain high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, and set out what safeguards it will provide to ensure this.
1.2 Government response
In the government’s response to the committee, it said it was committed to ensuring the UK’s food system delivers safe, healthy, affordable food for everyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn, and which is built on a sustainable and resilient agriculture sector. It said it was for this reason the government had commissioned Henry Dimbleby, Defra non-executive director and founder of the Leon restaurant chain, to lead its independent review into a national food strategy. This strategy was published in June 2022 and is examined in section 6 of this briefing.
On helping people in the UK live healthier lives, the government highlighted the publication of its obesity strategy in 2020. The strategy promised a range of measures including those designed to tackle the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt and the expansion of NHS weight management strategies. Those pledges are examined in section 4 below.
In response to the committee’s other recommendations, the government said the value of the Healthy Start voucher was kept under continuous review. and the Department of Health and Social Care was working to review the operation of the Healthy Start scheme. It added that government was supporting around 1.4 million of the most disadvantaged children through benefits-related free school meals, “saving families around £400 a year for each child”. Further it said that compliance with the School Food Standards was mandatory for all maintained schools.
The government added that it was committed to using public sector food procurement policy to improve the quality of food and catering services within the public sector. It said this was terms of quality of produce and quality of food, as well as supporting local communities, better nutrition and improving sustainability.
On farming standards, the government highlighted the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, bringing together industry stakeholders including farming unions across the UK to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, whilst “ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined”.
The Agriculture Act 2020 also introduced a requirement for the government to report on food security in the UK, which is examined in section 5 of this briefing.
2. Data on food and agriculture in the UK and its relationship with health
2.1 Value of the agri-food sector
The agri-food sector makes a significant contribution to the UK economy. According to the definition used by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), agri-food includes agriculture and fishing; food and drink manufacturing; food and drink wholesaling; food and drink retailing; and non-residential catering. DEFRA’s latest ‘Food statistics in your pocket’, published in March 2022, reported that the sector contributed £128.7bn to the UK’s Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2019.
In addition, the release provided the following headline statistics, outlining the sector’s contribution in terms of employment and expenditure:
- 4.1m people were employed in the agri-food sector in quarter 4 2019, 13% of Great Britain employment.
- Total consumer expenditure on food, drink and catering in 2020 amounted to £208bn.
- Food and drink exports were worth £21.4bn in 2020.
- Total factor productivity (TFP) of the UK food chain beyond the farm-gate has risen by 0.4% between 2018 and 2019. At the same time, productivity in the wider economy rose by 0.6%. (The TFP of the UK food sector is an indicator of the efficiency and competitiveness of the food industry within the UK)
2.2 Food origins and production
Of the origins of the food consumed in the UK, based on the farm-gate value of unprocessed food in 2020, the UK supplied just over half (54%). The leading foreign suppliers of food consumed in the UK were countries from the EU (28%). Africa, Asia, North and South America each provided a 4% share. This breakdown is illustrated below:
The Food Production to Supply Ratio provides a broad indicator of the ability of UK agriculture to meet consumer demand. It is calculated as the farm-gate value of raw food production (including for export) divided by the value of raw food for human consumption. As noted by DEFRA, a high production to supply ratio “fails to insulate a country against many possible disruptions to its supply chain”. For the UK, the ratio in 2020 was 60% for all food and 74% for indigenous type food. This compares with 61% and 76% respectively in 2019.
Similarly, final output of UK agriculture is a proxy indicator for UK food production. The volume of all outputs fell by 7% between 2019 and 2020.
In 2020, the value of imports was greater than the value of exports in each of the broad categories of food, feed and drink except ‘beverages’, which had a trade surplus of £455mn, largely due to exports of scotch whisky. The three largest value imported commodity groups (at 2020 prices) were fruit and vegetables, meat, and beverages. The trade deficit in food, feed and drink rose in 2020 to £26.6bn, up from £26.1bn in 2019.
2.3 Food prices and the rising cost of living
According to the official consumer price index (CPI) measure of inflation, food and non-alcoholic drink prices were 8.6% higher in the year to May 2022. This is up from 6.7% in April and the highest rate of increase since April 2009.
This recent increase is illustrated in the time-series data shown below, taken from statistics published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in June 2022:
According to experimental statistics from the ONS, based on web-scraped supermarket data for 30 everyday grocery items, the lowest-priced items have increased in cost by around as much as average food and non-alcoholic drinks prices, with both rising around 6% to 7% over the 12 months to April 2022.
Data from the Trussell Trust reveals that between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022, food banks in their network distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcels to “people in crisis”. This was an increase of 14% compared to the same period in 2019/20. 832,000 of these parcels went to children. The Trussell Trust said that compared to five years ago, the need for food banks in their network had risen by 81%.
Recent analysis published by the ONS in April 2022 said that price rises in food and drinks partly reflected challenges faced by businesses in the food and drink sector. Challenges it said included supply chain issues, increasing costs, and labour shortages, as explored below. Businesses in the food and beverage sector have also been affected by the recent rise in energy prices. In March 2022, 60% reported being affected by the rise in energy prices, compared with 38% of businesses across all sectors.
2.4 Impact of food and diet on health in the UK
Recent statistics estimated that 64% of adults in England were either obese (28%) or overweight (36%). Similar rates were reported for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Men in England were more likely than women to be overweight or obese (68.2% of men, 60.4% of women), and those aged 45 to 74 are most likely to be overweight or obese than other age groups.
In children, around 1 in 7 (14.4%) of reception age children aged 4 to 5 are obese, with a further 13.3% overweight. At age 10 to 11, more than a quarter are obese (25.5%) and 15.4% overweight. These figures, taken from the National Child Measurement Programme for 2020/21 showed a large increase on the previous year (2019/20), when 9.9% of children aged 4 to 5 and 21.0% of children aged 10 to 11 were obese.
Obesity prevalence is highest amongst the most deprived groups in society. The government’s own analysis notes that children in the most deprived parts of the country are more than twice as likely to be obese as their peers living in the richest areas.
Obesity is also associated with reduced life expectancy. It is a risk factor for a range of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, at least 12 kinds of cancer, liver and respiratory disease, and obesity can impact on mental health.
NHS Digital reports that 10,780 in 2019/20 hospital admissions were directly attributable to obesity. This represented a decrease of 3% on 2018/19, when there were 11,117 admissions. In the same year, there were just over 1 million (1,022,000) hospital admissions where obesity was a factor. This was an increase of 17% on 2018/19, when there were 876,000. NHS Digital also reported that 294,000 items were prescribed for the treatment of obesity on the NHS. This was a decrease of 17% on 2019, when there were 355,000.
3. Current challenges facing the UK agri-food sector
3.1 Labour shortages in food and farming
Reporting in March 2022, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee said that the UK food and farming sector has been suffering from acute labour shortages, “due principally to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic”. The committee reported that in August 2021 the number of vacancies was estimated to be 500,000 out of 4.1 million roles in the sector. Grant Thornton UK LLP, who provided this estimate, said this was equivalent to a 12.5% structural vacancy rate, which it described as a “chronic” labour shortage.
The committee reported evidence provided to it from Scotland Food and Drink, who said that business leaders were “united in their view that the shortage of labour is the single biggest challenge they face”. The committee also cited evidence from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) who said that labour availability was a “barrier to growth” and that the food supply chain “could break down at any moment”.
Other witnesses to the committee also referenced the impact of the labour shortages on supply chains. They included Ian Wright, chief executive officer of the Food and Drink Federation, who said:
These labour shortages are having a big impact on the profitability of businesses in the hospitality and food service sector. They are having a big impact on the capacity of my members in the manufacturing sector to deliver on time, every time. That is why you see across supermarkets and in hospitality something like one order in five not being fulfilled on time, in the right place and in the right quantity.
My last point is that that itself is a real threat. Indeed, it basically undermines the just-in-time practice we have had in the food supply chain for the last 40 years. If the product is not delivered on time every time, then just in time is undermined, which is why many stores and hospitality outlets are seeing really disrupted supply. Will it continue? Yes. Most of our businesses think it will continue well into 2023, all through next year, and not just next year but into 2023, absent a change in the labour market. […]
We found clear evidence that labour shortages have badly affected the food and farming industry—threatening food security, the welfare of animals and the mental health of those working in the sector. Businesses have been badly hit, with the pig sector being particularly affected. The food sector is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but faces permanent shrinkage if a failure to address its acute labour shortages leads to wage rises, price increases, reduced competitiveness and, ultimately, food production being exported abroad and increased imports.
The committee made several recommendations, including:
- The government must learn the lessons from the way it introduced the temporary short-term visa schemes of autumn 2021, as their late announcement limited the sector’s ability to take advantage of the visas being made available.
- The government must review aspects of the skilled worker visa scheme that act as barriers, including the English language requirement and the complexity and costs involved in a visa application.
- The government needs to build on its welcome expansion of the seasonal workers pilot scheme to the ornamentals sector and: increase the number of visas available by 10,000 this year; make the scheme permanent; and commit to announcing visa numbers in future on a rolling five-year basis.
The committee also said that the government should work with industry to tackle the immediate labour shortage facing the sector and to develop a long-term labour strategy that combines the deployment of new technology with attractive education and vocational training packages to entice British-based workers, thus reducing the sector’s dependence on overseas labour.
In its response to the committee, published on 21 June 2022, the government acknowledged that there were both short and long-term challenges to recruiting across the food and farming sector. Whilst contending that the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, it said it had worked closely with industry and across government over the past year to respond to labour shortages. Ministers added:
We extended the seasonal worker route until 2024, delivered emergency, temporary visa schemes for the poultry, pork, and HGV food transportation sectors in response to specific challenges last autumn, and introduced an accompanying package of non-immigration measures to alleviate pressures in the pig sector, including private storage aid and slaughter incentive payment schemes. We continue to closely monitor pressures in the food and farming sector and work closely across government to ensure that the labour needs of the sector are understood.
3.2 Global supply chain issues including the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Some elements of global agri-food supply chains were already under pressure prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For example, in fertiliser supply, where China had restricted fertiliser exports and a rail strike in Canada had negatively impacted the productivity of the world’s largest fertiliser producer.
These issues have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The head of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the world is risking a global food crisis that could last until 2024 as a result of events in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Food prices on international markets have already risen significantly, particularly given the roles of both Russia and Ukraine as important producers of various agricultural products, such as wheat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that its global food price index hit a record high in March 2022. In the latest data, the index averaged 157.4 points in May 2022, which was down 0.9 points (0.6 percent) from April, marking the second consecutive monthly decline. However, the index remained 29.2 points (22.8 percent) above its value in the corresponding month in 2021.
Recent analysis from the House of Commons library on the impact of the conflict notes:
The conflict may lead to Ukrainian farmers being unable to spread fertilisers and pesticides and plant seeds for the spring crop due to be harvested in the summer. In addition, Ukraine’s Black Sea ports are transportation hubs for exporting certain commodities, including grains. They have mostly been shut since the invasion. A surge in fertiliser prices may also lead to higher costs. Russia is a major exporter of fertilisers and has put restrictions on exports, with supplies also disrupted.
In response to a recent parliamentary question on the impact of the conflict on food markets, the minister for exports, Mike Freer, said:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significantly exacerbated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens the poorest and most vulnerable globally.
The G7 is committed to providing support to those countries who need it and ensuring any sanctions against Russia have no direct impact on food security or supply chains.
The UK is working with Ukraine and international partners to help Ukraine export its grain and play its role as the breadbasket of the world […]
Further information can be found in the Brookings article, ‘The war in Ukraine triggered a global food shortage’, June 2022.
3.3 Climate change
Climate change is already affecting food security through increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC also predicts that food security will be increasingly affected by projected future climate change, with pastoral systems and fruit and vegetable production being particularly vulnerable.
A recent note from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) detailed the potential consequences of climate change for UK agriculture:
More frequent extreme temperatures and changes to rainfall patterns will lead to overall negative impacts on production in the UK, even if a warmer UK climate may improve growing conditions for some crops. For example, livestock are vulnerable to the migration of diseases with climate change. Bluetongue disease has appeared in sheep in northern Europe, possibly because of temperature-driven shifts in the range of disease-carrying midges. Crop production is already being impacted by the availability of water resources. For example, the 2018 UK heatwave led to low yields of most UK crops, such as cereals, carrots, potatoes and livestock fodder. In addition, the 2011 Government Foresight report on International Dimensions of Climate Change and the Climate Change Committee’s Risk Assessment 2017 highlighted the importance of global climate change impacts affecting the UK through trade networks. For example, the UK imports 3.8% of fruit and vegetables from highly climate vulnerable countries such as Belize and India, and a further 13.8% from moderately vulnerable countries such as South Africa and Brazil. Reductions in fruit and vegetable availability in the UK will have negative impacts on health.
The IPCC also stated that agriculture and the food system are key to global climate change responses. It contends that combining supply-side actions, such as efficient production, transport, and processing, with demand-side interventions, such as modification of food choices, and reduction of food loss and waste, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and enhances food system resilience.
Further information is provided in the below:
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Special report on climate change and land: Chapter five—food security’, 2019
- Nature, ‘Towards food supply chain resilience to environmental shocks’, 2020
3.4 Agricultural transition and post-Brexit arrangements
Following the UK’s exit from the European Union and the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), DEFRA has been developing a new approach for English farming. From 2021 to 2027, DEFRA intends to phase out direct payments (which have been the primary element of farm support) across a seven-year “agricultural transition”. These reforms were introduced through the Agriculture Act 2020. At the same time, the department will pilot and roll out components of a new environmental scheme, collectively referred to as Environmental Land Management.
Analysis from the House of Commons Library notes that farm representatives and green groups broadly welcomed the new farm support policies during the passage of the Agriculture Act. There was general support for replacing the CAP system of paying farm subsidies based on the area farmed and instead paying farmers to provide public goods, such as environmental and animal health improvements.
However, the analysis notes that farm groups were concerned that food production was not included in the list of purposes for which funding could be provided. Further, farmers have expressed concerns about implementation of the new approaches. These focus on the timescales for the new measures and the extent to which the new schemes will provide farmers with enough support.
Further information on these issues is provided in the below:
- House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, ‘Environmental land management and the agricultural transition’, 28 October 2021, HC 78 of session 2021–22; and Government response, 18 January 2022
- House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, ‘Environmental land management scheme’, 9 January 2022, HC 639 of session 2021–22; and Government response, 1 March 2022
- House of Commons Library, ‘Farm funding: Implementation of new approaches’, 26 January 2022
4. Government policy response: 2020 obesity strategy
4.1 What did the strategy propose?
In July 2020, the government published ‘Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives’. It followed previous strategies for tackling childhood obesity in 2016 and 2018, and followed public health measures such as the introduction of the Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL) in 2018.
In the strategy, the government committed to a range of measures as summarised below:
- To introduce the Better Health campaign delivered by PHE.
- To expand weight management services available through the NHS, and accelerate the expansion of the NHS diabetes prevention programme.
- To publish a 4-nation public consultation to gather views and evidence on the current “traffic light” food labelling system.
- To introduce legislation to require large out-of-home food businesses to add calorie labels to the food they sell.
- To consult on the intention to make companies provide calorie labelling on alcohol.
- To legislate to end the promotion of products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) by restricting volume promotions such as “buy one get one free”, and the placement of these foods in locations intended to encourage purchasing, both online and in physical stores in England.
- To ban the advertising of HFSS products shown on TV and online before 9pm, and consult on how to introduce a total HFSS advertising restriction online.
- To offer all primary care networks the opportunity to equip their staff to become healthy weight coaches.
- To implement incentives for doctors to ensure that everyone living with obesity is offered support for weight loss through the quality outcomes framework.
The Government also highlighted a range of further measures that would be needed, including:
- Improving public sector procurement of food and drink as part of the national food strategy.
- Supporting disabled people to move towards a healthier weight as part of the national strategy for disabled people.
- Continued work with business and industry through the government’s reduction and reformulation programmes on sugar, calories and salt.
4.2 Reaction to the obesity strategy
Adam Briggs, senior policy fellow at the independent charity the Health Foundation, welcomed “some positive steps” but described the strategy as a “missed opportunity”, commenting:
Many of [these] announcements are not new ideas—they have been included in previous childhood obesity plans but never implemented. Too much time has already been lost, we must now see decisive action.
Opposition parties have voiced similar views. Shadow Health and Social Care Minister Alex Norris called for action rather than consultation, arguing “we’ve had big promises before from Tory ministers on banning junk food advertising only for measures to be kicked into the long grass of consultation”.
An editorial in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology expressed supported for efforts to achieve a healthier nation but raised concerns that the ban on food promotions and advertisements might result in higher prices and growing inequalities. This could contribute to obesity and poor health outcomes. The Lancet also said the strategy failed to take account of the impact of biological, societal and psychological factors on obesity.
Concerns were also raised by restaurant and food leaders who criticised the timing for plans to make large cafes and restaurants display calorie information as they attempted to recover from the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. There was also criticism about the government’s proposals to ban HFSS advertising, including Sue Eustace, director of public affairs at the Advertising Association, who said:
We are bitterly disappointed by the announcement today by the government that they are to press ahead with measures against advertising that are misguided, unfounded and will be totally ineffective in the fight against obesity. The government’s very own research has shown that a 9pm watershed ban on HFSS advertising will reduce a child’s calorie intake by a miniscule 1.7 calories per day—the equivalent of half a Smartie.
4.3 Progress since the publication of the strategy
In June 2021, the government published its response to its public consultation on introducing a total online advertising restriction for products high in fat, sugar and salt. As a result, it said that it would introduce a ban on HFSS products being shown on TV and online before 9pm, which would “will help limit the amount of HFSS advertising children see and is easy for parents and guardians to understand”. It also said that it would go further online and would consult on the introduction of a total online HFSS advertising restriction.
The Health and Care Act 2022 subsequently introduced restrictions on the advertising of less healthy food and drink on television, on on-demand programme services and online. Under the provisions of the act, a 9pm watershed will be implemented from January 2023 before which advertisements for certain types of products could not be shown.
In July 2021, the government also published its response to its public consultation on restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt by location and by price. It said that the following would be introduced as a result:
- Location restrictions will apply to store entrances, aisle ends and checkouts and their online equivalents (that is, entry pages, landing pages for other food categories, and shopping basket or payment pages).
- Volume price restrictions will prohibit retailers from offering promotions such as “buy-one-get-one-free” or “3 for 2” offers on HFSS products.
5. 2021 UK Food Security Report
In December 2021, the government produced the first ever ‘UK Food Security Report’. The requirement to publish such an evaluation at least once every three years was included in the Agriculture Act 2020. The report examined past, current, and predicted trends relevant to UK food security according to the themed areas set out below.
5.1 Theme 1: Global food availability
Published before the crisis in Ukraine, the food security report found that global food supply had improved since 2010. It noted that the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic caused some disruption to trans-boundary supply chains but said that global trade in products was expected to recover and to continue in the long term.
However, the report noted that several factors threatened the stability and long-term sustainability of global food production: climate change and climate variability, biodiversity loss caused by agricultural land expansion, and overexploitation of natural capital resources, including fish stocks and water resources.
The report also said that the current data on undernourishment, as well as obesity levels, across the world may indicate that global food production is not equitably meeting populations’ nutritional requirements, including the UK’s.
5.2 Theme 2: UK food supply sources
On sources of food supply to the UK, the report said that the UK has “diverse and longstanding trade links that meet consumer demand for a range of products at all times of the year”. It noted that trade is dominated by countries in the EU and said “it is too early to say what effect leaving the EU might have on that trade”.
With regard to domestic production, the report said this was stable, with variations in yield and consumer demand balanced by imports and exports. It added that both agricultural production and manufacturing have become increasingly efficient and are geared towards meeting consumer demand, although food waste is still high.
The report found that the biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production would come from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity. It noted that wheat yields dropped by 40% in 2020 due to heavy rainfall and droughts at bad times in the growing season. The report said that, although they have bounced back in 2021, this was an indicator of the effect that increasingly unreliable weather patterns may have on future production.
5.3 Theme 3: Supply chain resilience
In its key messages on supply chain resilience, the report referenced both the impact of labour shortages and the impact of issues such as energy prices. It said that the UK was resilient to potential shocks in the food supply chain and that supply systems were adaptable and flexible in responding to problems. However, it also said that notable risks to the supply chain stemmed from its dependence upon other critical sectors, including energy, transportation, borders, labour, key inputs (chemicals, additives and ingredients), and data communications. In addition, it highlighted the threat of cyber-attack to UK businesses, including those in the agri-food sector, which the report said was significant and growing.
The report also said that both EU and non-EU food imports, via all modes of transport, are well spread across several ports of entry, with no port having a dominant share. It noted there was, however, a reliance upon the Short Strait (the route between Kent and Northern France) for some food products, including fruit and vegetables (62% of fruit and vegetable imports arrive from the EU via the Short Strait), meats (43%), and dairy (41%). Yet it said that only simultaneous disruption to several ports would be serious enough to have a material effect on UK food supply.
The report noted that securing sufficient labour at appropriate skill levels presented additional issues for the agriculture and food sectors. It said this included short-term challenges, mainly due to high levels of absenteeism caused by coronavirus (Covid-19), and the longer-term challenges of filling vacancies across the agri-food sector.
5.4 Theme 4: Food security at household level
On food security at a household level, reporting before the recent increases in cost of living, the food security report said that 92% of households viewed themselves as being food secure in the financial year 2019/2020. It said that in the last decade, food and non-alcoholic drinks have, on average, become cheaper compared to other goods and services. However, it also said that affordability needed to be understood in the wider context of overall household expenditure. It noted that housing and transport make up the largest share of spend for the average UK household, and both categories have seen increases in their share in the last decade.
The report said access to food shops in England was “for the most part adequate”, with at least 84% of the population in every region able to reach a shop by public transport or walking within 15 minutes.
5.5 Theme 5: Food safety and consumer confidence
On food safety and consumer confidence, the report found that the majority of consumers in the UK trusted the food they buy and eat to be safe and accurately labelled. It added that, when prompted, consumers expressed concern around animal welfare, environmental issues, nutrition, and food production methods. The report also found that food business compliance with food safety regulation has remained high with slight increases in all four countries of the UK in the past six years, although there is some year-to-year variation.
6. 2022 UK Food Strategy
6.1 Key elements of the strategy
Following the independent review of the UK food sector led by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain and non-executive director at DEFRA, the government published its ‘UK Food Strategy’ in June 2022.
The government noted the strategy came at a time of significantly rising food prices and the impact on supply chains of the war in Ukraine. It said that the objectives of the strategy were to deliver:
- A prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the levelling up agenda through good quality jobs around the country.
- A sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all.
- Trade that provides export opportunities and consumer choice through imports, without compromising our regulatory standards for food, whether produced domestically or imported.
To that end, it said it would seek to deliver the following:
- To broadly maintain the current level of food we produce domestically, including sustainably boosting production in sectors where there are post-Brexit opportunities including horticulture and seafood.
- To ensure that by 2030, pay, employment and productivity, as well as completion of high-quality skills training will have risen in the agri-food industry in every area of the UK, to support our production and levelling up objectives.
- To halve childhood obesity by 2030, reducing the healthy life expectancy (HLE) gap between local areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030, adding five years to HLE by 2035 and reducing the proportion of the population living with diet-related illnesses; and to support this, increasing the proportion of healthier food sold.
- To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impacts of the food system, in line with our net zero commitments and biodiversity targets and preparing for the risks from a changing climate.
- To contribute to our export strategy goal to reach £1tn of exports annually by 2030 and supporting more UK food and drink businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), to take advantage of new market access and free trade agreements (FTAs) post-Brexit.
- To maintain high standards for food consumed in the UK, wherever it is produced.
The strategy provides further detail on how it intends each key objective will be met. Under objective 1, on a prosperous agri-food and seafood sector, the commitments given included:
- To support farmers in broadly maintaining levels of domestic production through productivity gain and new farming schemes, and enable growth in key sectors, including horticulture and seafood, making the most of post-Brexit opportunities.
- To improve innovation by spending £270mn through the Farming Innovation Programme and provide £120mn investment in research across the food system in partnership with UK Research and Innovation.
- To address the need for a sufficient, qualified, and well-paid workforce by releasing the additional provision of 10,000 visas under the seasonal worker visa route, including 2,000 for the poultry sector. It said this meant that a total of 40,000 visas would be made available for seasonal workers in 2022, providing labour for food businesses across the UK. In addition, the government said it would commission an independent review to assess and ensure the quantity and quality of the food sector workforce.
- To work with industry to ensure the UK’s agri-food industry workforce has the necessary skills to take advantage of new and emerging innovations will help drive greater efficiency and production.
To support objective 2, delivering a sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system, the government said it would:
- Use the Agriculture Act 2020, Fisheries Act 2020 and Environment Act 2021 as frameworks to incentivise farmers and food producers to adopt more sustainable practices.
- Publish a land use framework in 2023 to ensure the UK met net zero and biodiversity targets, and to help farmers adapt to a changing climate, whilst continuing to produce high quality, affordable produce that supports a healthier diet.
- Undertake a programme of randomised control trials to develop a suite of evidence based and value for money interventions to encourage and enable healthier and more sustainable diets.
- Introduce measures to improve school food and build a strong food curriculum, including up to £5mn to deliver a school cooking revolution and a new pilot for local authorities to assure school compliance with school food standards.
- Launch a food data transparency partnership to “drive a real transformation in health, animal welfare and environmental outcomes through our food”. The strategy added that the government will consult on implementing mandatory public reporting against a set of health metrics and explore a similar approach to sustainability and animal welfare. It also said that it intended to provide consumers with the information they need to make more sustainable, ethical, and healthier food choices and incentivise industry to produce healthier and more ethical and sustainable food.
- Consult on Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF), which will include whether to widen the scope of GBSF mandatory organisations to cover the whole public sector. It will also include whether to introduce a target that at least 50% of food spend should be on food produced locally or certified to higher environmental production standards.
Finally, on objective 3, to deliver export opportunities and consumer choice through imports without compromising regulatory standards, the government said it would:
- Harness the benefits of new Free Trade Agreements whilst maintaining the UK’s domestic standards by “using a range of levers within our bespoke trade agreements”. It added that the government would publish a statement on the UK’s independent animal health and production regime which will inform our negotiations.
- Ensure British businesses are well placed to take advantage of the growing export opportunities available to them through these deals, including by placing agri-food attachés at our embassies in major trading partner countries.
6.2 Reaction to the strategy
Announcing the food strategy, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called it “a blueprint for how we will back farmers, boost British industry and help protect people against the impacts of future economic shocks by safeguarding our food security”.
However, the strategy has also been criticised for a lack of breadth and depth. Henry Dimbleby, the author of the original independent review, said that:
It’s not a strategy. It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.
These concerns related in part to elements included in the independent review which were missing from the strategy, including proposals for a significant expansion to free school meals, greater environment and welfare standards in farming, and a 30 percent reduction in meat and dairy consumption. On this latter point, Mr Dimbleby said:
Yet again the government has ducked the issue of how we don’t just import food that destroys the environment and is cruel to animals—we can’t create a good fair farming system, then export those harms abroad. I thought the government would address this but it didn’t.
The Food Foundation, a charity campaigning for a more sustainable food system and who were involved in the independent review, said the strategy was “disappointing”. It added:
While we welcome several of the new commitments that have been made, such as to a new horticulture strategy for England, a land use framework, mandatory buying standards for food in all public sector settings, and mandatory business reporting, many of them will flounder without new legislation to make them stick.
The lack of a food bill makes today’s strategy a pale imitation of the independent National Food Strategy which was published last year. Echoes of many of Henry Dimbleby’s good ideas can be seen within today’s recommendations, but without robust regulatory mechanisms to ensure that they can be delivered and enforced the proposals do not have the clout that will be necessary to deliver real impact.
Sir Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute for Health Equity and a public health expert, also said the food strategy was unlikely to tackle the problem of obesity, particularly given it had dropped many of the Dimbleby recommendations. Sir Michael added, in response to comments from the health secretary about people making individual choices what to eat, that there are marked societal trends which government had a role in addressing:
We’re agreed the government has an important role in health. There is an important debate as to where it starts and stops, and people will put the dividing line between government action and individual responsibility in different places.
None of us wants the government telling us what we have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we’re all pretty pleased that we can check into a hotel room or send our children to a school and know there is no asbestos. We want the government to do that. We’re pretty pleased when we turn on the tap and the water is drinkable. We don’t want to have to contact a helpline first.
But if we are all making individual choices, how come obesity rates are rising? Is each of us making the individual choice to be overweight or obese?
When you see a societal trend like that and say the government shouldn’t get in the way because people are making their individual choices, my guess is that if you asked people, would you like to get diabetes, or heart disease, to increase your risk of cancer by a third, they would say, no, of course not. People aren’t putting on weight because they want to.
The NFU was more welcoming of the strategy, and particularly its emphasis on domestic food production. NFU President Minette Batters said:
The strategy represents a clear milestone. The government is recognising the importance of domestic food production, maintaining our productive capacity and growing more food in this country, particularly at a time when the war in Ukraine has focused attention on the importance and fragility of our global food security. Food production will always be core to a nation’s resilience and I’m pleased the government has recognised this.
The Soil Association also welcomed the strategy’s backing for British farmers, but also criticised the lack of measures on dietary requirements. Rob Percival, head of food policy, said:
It seems that what broke this strategy was not a lack of good intent but a narrow-minded ideology which believes government should not intervene to reshape diets.
Opposition parties have been critical of the strategy. Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow environment and food secretary, said the government had “absolutely no ambition” to tackle crises over food prices. He added: “this is nothing more than a statement of vague intentions, not a concrete proposal to tackle the major issues facing our country”. Tim Farron, the rural affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, also said the lack of protections over food standards for imports risked being “an utter betrayal of British farmers”.
7. Read more
- Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Government food strategy’, June 2022
- Independent Review of the National Food Strategy, ‘The plan’, July 2021
- House of Lords Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment, ‘Hungry for change: Fixing the failures in food’, 6 July 2020, HL Paper 85 of session 2019–20; and Government response, 4 September 2020