Food summit a first step, but must lead to ‘tangible change’

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Industry leaders were at Number 10 Downing Street to discuss the state of the sector. Credit: Getty/  Nigel Harris
Industry leaders were at Number 10 Downing Street to discuss the state of the sector. Credit: Getty/ Nigel Harris

Related tags Supply chain Food security

The Prime Minister’s Farm to Fork Summit has been described as a constructive first step towards addressing the biggest challenges facing the UK’s food and drink supply chain, but criticism was levelled at the lack of detail on how the Government would tackle the immediate threat of price inflation and availability.

Members of the food and drink industry descended on Number 10 Downing Street yesterday (Tuesday, 16 May) for a closed doors session to discuss how Government and industry can work together to support the UK food industry.

During the summit, the Government announced a number of investments and schemes to help support the UK food chain, with particular focus on making farms more sustainable to improve food security.

Interesting takeaways include planned investment in sustainability (£32.5m), exports (£5.6m), and water security (£11.6m) and a scheme that will allow farmers to convert their buildings to process foods to sell in farm shops without a planning application from local authority. A full list can be found below.

Complex challenges

Food and Drink Federation chief executive Karen Betts described the summit as a constructive first step towards addressing some of the complex challenges the UK food system is currently facing – not least the record high levels of food and drink inflation and availability of some products.

“The Prime Minister and Secretary of State Therese Coffey praised our hard-working sector and kicked-off a range of discussions on sustainability and resilience in the supply chain, improving skills and boosting trade,”​ said Betts.

“However, it’s a pity there wasn’t more of a laser focus on immediate issues and the drivers of inflation – while some of these are beyond everyone’s control, many are not. Action to fill labour and skills shortages and to simplify current and upcoming regulation, as well as simplifying post-Brexit labelling changes, would help to drive down prices. 

“It’s critical that government takes the time to ensure that their draft regulation on packaging recycling in particular will actually work. The current design is likely to drive further and avoidable costs into food businesses, which will add to the cost of everyone’s weekly shop, just as prices should be starting to come down.”

Criticism of the summit

Phil Thompson, chief executive of independent energy developer Balance Power, was critical of the support coming out of yesterday’s summit and the little it will do to address the challenges facing the sector.

“The last year has presented an upward battle for farmers and landowners, who have had to grapple with sky-high fertiliser, fuel and energy prices with little to no support from the government, which failed to insulate the sector following the loss of post-Brexit subsidies,”​ said Thompson.

“Rishi Sunak’s support package announced yesterday does very little to address the crux of the challenges that are crippling the sector. So much so that 2/3 of farmers are not confident about the future of UK food production, which is notable given that support for energy-intensive industries such as food production was not announced.

 “Farmers need security. Clean energy can offer a vital financial lifeline, particularly with the option of behind the meter solutions. Connecting directly to a renewable energy source can free farmers from record-high, fixed-term energy contracts, helping shift the power back into the famers hands and providing reassurance for the future of food in the UK.”

Need for change

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said the raft of measures announced today needed to invoke real and tangible change and urged the Prime Minister to keep up momentum to prioritise a sustainable food system for all.

“We welcome Government re-engaging with food issues at a time it matters more than ever. It is positive that we see recognition of the world-class production standards our members operate to, combined with a focus on overcoming trade barriers,”​ said Griffiths. “This is a good starting point to be working from.

“Today’s commitments must lead to real tangible change, where ‘food security’ translates into meaningful objectives that support British poultry meat producers in ensuring safe, affordable, nutritious, low impact food.

“Today has been a crucial first step towards building effective solutions with industry colleagues to prioritise a sustainable food system for all. We must now ensure that this doesn’t pivot into a side-step around the big issues we are waiting for more detail on.”

What was announced at the summit?

Innovation in the farming and food sectors

  • £12.5m to support research projects on environmental sustainability and resilience on farms
  • £30m investment in precision breeding
  • Working group to bring together plant breeders, manufacturers and retailers together to agree approach that enables these products to store shelves

Skills and sufficient labour

  • 45,000 (2,000 for poultry) seasonal workers for horticulture in 2024 – same as this year. Potential for further 10,000 visas should demand call for it
  • Respond to the Independent Review of Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain in autumn 2023
  • Autumn 2023, Government will set out how it will support the sector to access the labour it needs alongside actions to reduce sector’s reliance on migrant labour – including automation and promoting domestic labour procurement and training
  • Above informed by last year’s Review of Automation in Horticulture plus ongoing support for Research and Development and innovation in robots and autonomous vehicles

Farming schemes

  • Replace the Fruit and Vegetables Aid Scheme for England from 2026 with one that looks to include more growers, including those involved in controlled environment horticulture
  • The Sustainable Farming Incentive will open with a new and improved, expanded offer later in summer 2023

Fairer supply chains

  • New reviews to launch in Autumn in eggs and horticulture sectors
  • Dairy sector regulations to be laid in Parliament sometime this year, similar to commitments made surrounding the pig sector
  • Groceries Code Adjudicator not to be merged with the CMA. CMA will work with the GCA to recruit staff, improve access to professional expertise and explore other support it can offer

Boosting exports

  • Plans to publish regular snapshot of priority market access barriers
  • Five new agricultural attachés to reach new markets
  • £2m investment in global trade shows and missions, delivered in partnership with the Food and Drink Export Council
  • £1.6m investment in the GREAT food and drink campaign
  • Additional £1m funding to extend the Seafood Exports Package for 2025-28
  • £1m bespoke export support fund for the dairy sector with a particular focus on support for SMEs

Water security

  • Accelerate around £1.6bn of new water infrastructure delivery, including those with agricultural benefits including a £10m water management grant for on-farm irrigation and water storage
  • Make abstraction licence decisions more flexible to support changing needs of farmers, the economy and the environment in the context of climate change
  • National and regional Water Resource Management Plans for agriculture
  • Support farmer-led groups to identify local water resource schemes

Energy security

  • Greater support for Controlled Environment Horticulture (CEH) to be able to access the energy intensive industries exemption scheme
  • Work with ONS to investigate the classification of CEH within the UK Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities, which is commonly used to make assessments for support schemes
  • Explore how to increase the resource efficiency of the sector by utilising industrial and power sector waste heat as a thermal source of energy for glasshouses and looking at options for co-location to improve energy efficiencies
  • Open up investment in barn top solar through our new farming scheme grants

Cutting red tape

  • A review of planning barriers to farm diversification – subject to consultation, farmers will be able to freely convert their building to process foods to sell in farm shops without the need of a planning application to their local authority
  • Launch a call for evidence to understand the barrier to delivering projects on farmers’ land that will improve sustainable food production, nature and biodiversity
  • Revised national planning policy to ensure it fully seizes all opportunities to support ‘levelling up’ economic opportunity across rural areas

Related topics Supply Chain Brexit Environment

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