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Wake up to the causes of food insecurity

Display in Tesco, Rotherham, collecting for Trussell Trust food banks. Photo HASPhotos/shutterstock.com.

Food shortages and rising food prices have hit Britain. It need not have been that way – governments have squandered the opportunities in front of them…

Many young people would be surprised to know that before the year 2000 there were virtually no food banks in Britain. But government figures show that by July 2022 there were 1,400 Trussell Trust food banks in the country in addition to at least 1,172 independent ones.

And few would know that food banks were an American import. Companies like Walmart help their bottom line by donating to food banks; it enables them to sell more high-cost products and reduces food waste costs. All the main supermarkets in Britain now follow the same pattern.

The number of people using food banks is one measure of food insecurity; that number is likely to rise sharply. Food prices rose by 14.6 per cent in the 12 months to September 2022; this figure has risen for the last 14 consecutive months.

Food security is about more than access to food and household spending; it includes how resilient a nation is to food supply shocks. We discovered that to our cost in two world wars. Simply, the resilience depends on how much we are able to feed ourselves without relying on imports.


Compared with so many other countries Britain has a relatively benign climate, adequate rainfall (unevenly distributed) and a rich and continuing history of innovation. But it has a history of failing to take food security seriously; our governments have recently squandered two opportunities to put that right.

Food production in Britain was in decline for most of the period we were members of the European Union. Leaving the EU and its common agricultural policy (CAP) was our biggest opportunity since the end of WW2 to address growing food insecurity. But six years later the government has no clear idea of how to replace the CAP.

‘Leaving the EU was our biggest opportunity…’

In April 2022 Workers reported on the lack of clarity and coherence in the government’s scheme for managing our land and food production. It had even failed to list food production as a public good. Yet everything was meant to be fully up and running by 2024.

In September Defra, the ministry responsible for agriculture, declared the whole scheme “under review”,  raising widespread concerns. Nothing had changed by the end October. The suspicion is that the £2.4 billion promised (for England, since farming policy is devolved in Wales and Scotland) will become prey to the next round of public spending cuts.

Six years with no progress on agricultural policy is unforgivable – either post Brexit direct sabotage or incompetence. If previous generations of officials had moved as slowly then World War Two would have ended before food rationing would have had to begin, and Dig for Victory policies would have been implemented too late!

The delay is increasing pressure on farmland from developers. Jonathan Gorham, planning adviser for the National Farmers Union, pointed out that Britain has no target for increasing food self-sufficiency, but we do have targets for housing, energy installations and nature. And if they were all met, a quarter of England’s agricultural land would be lost!

The second opportunity to address food insecurity came in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the early stages there was genuine and urgent talk of food security and critical risks to food supply chains. Any concerns on the part of government were typically short lived.

Farming and fishing organisations, asked for their opinions and solutions at the time, now describe a lack of interest from Defra, and the shelving of work on potential solutions. If another pandemic were to strike soon – and medical advice is to think “when” not “if” – we will certainly begin from a less secure base than 2020.


The chief reason for the crisis in food prices is the war in Ukraine. War in Europe has become the key driver of food insecurity.

In December 2021, for the first time in 11 years, Britain produced a report on food security. There was no shortage of criticism about the way the report presented all its figures in the most optimistic light, but it was significant that it was produced at all.

The headline claim was “About 54 per cent of food on plates is produced in the UK, including the majority of grains, meat, dairy, and eggs”. But all of those products rely on imported feed or fertiliser.

Less than three months later and without any thought to food or energy security nationally or internationally, we allowed the government to throw the nation into the role of NATO chief cheerleader for a war in Europe and commit Britain to huge increases in arms spending for that war.

The amount of public spending committed this year and next for war is £2.3 billion at a time when all government spending is under review to find cuts, including farming subsidies.


But the link between the war in Ukraine and food insecurity is more than a distortion in our spending priorities as a nation. It has created cost increases in the essential inputs of food production, what farmers call “the three Fs” – feed, fuel and fertiliser.

The rising cost of fuel predated the war but is now steeper. British farmers face increased costs from one, if not all, of the three Fs. They are taking pragmatic decisions to temporarily cease production as their inputs (that is, costs) will exceed what they receive when they sell their livestock or crops.

The government’s food security report and food strategy include claims which don’t stand up to close scrutiny. For example, it says Britain is “Fully self-sufficient in liquid milk”. This is a half-truth.

There are still a few fully grass-fed, free-range dairies in Britain. But the massive increase in milk production per cow since the 1970s has been achieved by feeding them specialist dairy cattle feeds stuffed with imported maize, soy meal and other protein crops.

The rising cost of fuel and imported feed has already caused a decrease in milk production.

The food security report made similar claims about self-sufficiency in egg and poultry production, sectors that are even more reliant on imported feed. Unsurprisingly, a decline in egg and poultry production has already begun.

‘The impact on farm budgets and production will intensify…’

This year’s crops were largely produced using last year’s stocks of fertiliser. But the impact on farm budgets and production will intensify. Fertiliser is acutely scarce and becoming more expensive across Europe – as Ukraine and Russia used to produce a third of the fertiliser supplies used across the continent.

Until this August Britain had one fertiliser plant, in Billingham on Teesside, capable of producing a third of our needs. This has now temporarily ceased production due the high cost of energy! This means no domestic production of fertiliser and a consequent loss of carbon dioxide production, a by-product and a key requirement in food processing. If food cannot be processed here, then less will be produced.

What way food security?

Food security for Britain has unarguably decreased dramatically over the past year, even if the full extent has not been formally measured. This omission must be rectified and targets for food production set. Emergency measures are needed to protect farmland. The review of agricultural policy to replace the CAP needs to be expedited and it must include measures to reward food production and to support innovation including skills development.

Despite the neglect of farming, there is still much innovation – for example the work of Lincoln Agri Robotics. The Centre uses the slogan “Developing locally. Delivering globally” and so often it is other countries which invest in our ideas and innovations.

The thing about food security is that it also needs to be developed locally and delivered locally!