His lecture – delivered by Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association – highlighted the dangers of rising food prices.
“Keeping food prices low is hugely important in terms of maintaining political stability,” highlighted Elliott, who is professor of food safety and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast.
“There are large amounts of data to show that spikes in food prices result in civil unrest and even the fall of governments. The Egyptian ‘bread riots’ of 1977 affected major cities across Egypt. An uprising by hundreds of thousands of low-paid people, rioting due to the increase in costs of basic foodstuffs.”
In the UK, less than 12% of family income was spent on food. Low prices had been accompanied by a rapid expansion of choice and availability. Round the clock shopping was now available for more than 50,000 different food products in UK supermarkets.
And while many consumers would agree with the National Farmers Union’s call to buy British food, “very few people actively choose to buy British or UK food”, said Elliott.
Elliott added: “So, it could be argued that we are rightly sacrificing our UK agriculture and food industries, to keep lower food prices, have more choice and maintain political stability.”
Worsening food shortages
Also the UK was not considering long- term food security and was likely to experience worsening food shortages due to a cocktail of factors.
“Factors such as climate change, the increased wealth of India and China causing massive changes in the flow of food trade will leave the UK vulnerable to food shortages in the medium to long term,” he said.
“Only a few weeks ago it was widely reported in the media that a shortage of fresh vegetables had caused rationing at some UK supermarkets. The cause of the shortage? Highly unusual and adverse weather conditions during harvesting in some regions of Europe.”
The UK’s reliance on increasingly complex food chains threatened not only the nation’s supply of food but also its safety and authenticity.
“We are importing large amounts of food ingredients and commodities into the UK. These are often from complex supply chains,” according to the lecture. “This leaves us highly vulnerable to the growing menace of food fraud, which is being orchestrated more and more frequently by organised criminal networks.”
‘Growing menace of food fraud’
However, there was said to be no evidence of large-scale organised crime activity in the UK food system.
The City Food Lecture 2017 – titled: ‘Does it matter where our food comes from?’ – took place at London’s historic Guildhall on Tuesday (February 21). Bell delivered the lecture on behalf of Elliott, who was unable to attend.
Meanwhile, Elliott also used the lecture to warn that a trade deal with the US might lead the UK to import some food products British consumers would find hard to stomach.
On his list of controversial foods were: bleached chicken, hormone-treated beef, genetically modified (GM) fruit and vegetables and milk products derived from bovine somatotropin-treated (bST) cows.
More UK food shortages on the way
“Factors such as climate change, the increased wealth of India and China causing massive changes in the flow of food trade will leave the UK vulnerable to food shortages in the medium to long term.”
- Professor Chris Elliott