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Sainsbury’s CEO: Commitment to UK food sector has declined since Covid

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Simon Roberts called for more collaboration and increased Government support for the food and drink industry. Credit: Phil McCarthy Photography
Simon Roberts called for more collaboration and increased Government support for the food and drink industry. Credit: Phil McCarthy Photography

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Sainsbury’s boss Simon Roberts has called for greater levels of collaboration across the food and drink industry as well as more support from the UK Government.

Tasked with delivering the keynote address at the annual City Food and Drink Lecture, Roberts explored the statement ‘Good food needs a great food system’ in front of a packed crowd of industry figures at London’s Guildhall.

Roberts argued that the current UK food system is too siloed, featuring producers, suppliers and farmers on one side and retailers on the other. Meanwhile, he said that the Government has not provided enough assistance to the industry since the early days of the Covid pandemic.

As a result, stakeholders are not working together closely enough to enact the systemic changes that are necessary.

These divisions in our food system need to end​,” Roberts declared.

If we are to build up more resilience in our food system, then a new culture of collaboration and longer term partnership will be crucial in how we work and trade together​.”

Facing challenges

Roberts says building more resilience within the UK food and drink sector is essential, and while he believes the current system does a “remarkable job​”, it is also fragile. This is a result of the continued challenges of the past few years, challenges that will only become more intense in the future.

We have the highest welfare standards in the world and an ambitious sustainability agenda that results in additional costs and lower yields for farmers​,” Roberts explained.

Yet at the same time, UK consumers pay some of the lowest prices in the Western world at the checkout. The big question for all of us, is how do we square that circle​.”

The world and the food industry in particular face many challenges, with Roberts highlighting climate change, pressure of resources, nature loss and health risks as some of the most pressing.

Global temperatures are projected to eventually rise 3C above pre-industrial levels, resource extraction has tripled since 1970, more than 1m species face extinction and one in three adults are overweight or obese at the same time that one in nine are malnourished.

These issues have the potential to pose a very real threat to food security in the UK and around the world​,” Roberts warned.

Meanwhile, too many people in this country have lost the connection with where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it​.”

‘UK food system is a force for good’

While Roberts began by illustrating the very real obstacles that face the sector, he insisted his overall outlook remains positive. He believes that the food system in the UK is a “force for good”​ that can drive benefits for all stakeholders, but the way in which it is organised “needs to change”​.

Across agriculture, food manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing and catering, 4.2m people are employed by the UK food system, while £254bn was spent on food, drink and catering by consumers in 2022. Furthermore, since 1957 the proportion that households spend on food and drink has fallen from 31% to 12%.

During Covid the amazing work up and down the supply chain felt genuinely recognised and appreciated by politicians and the public​,” Roberts continued.

However, in normal times the food industry has not been seen enough as a force for good in the UK, which I really believe it is.

“If the Government approached the challenges we face now with the commitment seen through the pandemic, the severity of many problems could be mitigated.”

Four principles for a better future

Looking ahead, Roberts outlined four key principles that he believes can help guide the UK food sector in the future – policy, partnership, sustainability and customers.


Starting with policy, Roberts argued that it was incumbent on decision makers in parliament to provide funds, direction and support for farmers and producers, so that they are able to improve their capacity and become more efficient.

He added: “The narrative from Defra has heavily indexed on sustainable farming and this is certainly important. But this should be combined with the need to produce enough food, a fact that is often lost from the debate.

A key challenge is that food policy straddles multiple departments, so it is really important that policy is not only fit for purpose but integrated and joined up.”

Roberts pointed to Bord Bia in Ireland, the country’s “highly effective sector body”​, as evidence that the UK system lacks a unified voice.


Sainsbury’s works with more than 15,000 British farmers, sourcing £2bn worth of produce.

Historically, we have worked with suppliers in a manner that is too short term in outlook, but this old approach simply does not work anymore​,” Roberts explained.

We need partnerships that give farmers and growers the confidence to invest over the longer term and, at the same time, make their business and ours more sustainable. Greater collaboration is entirely compatible with a competitive market​.”

To illustrate the point, Roberts discussed Sainsbury’s partnership with chicken producer Moy Park, where the two parties agreed to provide 20% more space to roam than the industry standard. He also spoke of the retailer’s agreement with ABP, which is producing “25% lower carbon beef”​ compared with the wider industry.


Roberts believes that the pursuit of sustainability very much builds off the idea of partnership and collaboration he explored throughout the lecture. He called on stakeholders to employ new systems and technology that “work in harmony with nature”​.

To support its supply partners in this vein, Sainsbury’s works with Land App to provide farmers with mapping tools that drive positive agricultural practices.

“The balance between food development and nature enhancement is a delicate one for farmers,”​ Roberts explained.

“We have funded a development to Land App and are working with key suppliers to drive large scale improvement to soil health at the farm level.”


Roberts concluded the speech by reflecting on the work that suppliers and retailers have conducted to “keep a lid on prices”​ during a period where consumers were hit by the cost-of-living crisis.

Beyond that, he said that it is the responsibility of retailers to help consumers make informed decisions while shopping, especially as it relates to supporting the UK food and drink sector. Sainsbury’s recently introduced a ‘Best of British’ page on its website showcasing more than 450 locally sourced grocery products.

“Many customers remain wholly or partly price driven, but the quality of the food system in this country is appreciated by many and we can be more muscular in directing their attention to the products supplied by amazing British businesses,”​ Roberts concluded.

In other news, Dr Emily Pope of Trinity AgTech has said a lawsuit filed against meat processing giant JBS in the US should serve as a “wake up call”​ for food and drink manufacturers when publishing environmental targets​.

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