When did it become too much to ask of your own Government to prioritise national food security by protecting the interests of domestic production?
Whilst the resilience of British poultry is undoubtedly a valuable quality, it is not one that should solely define our industry in the face of ongoing economic and political uncertainty. It is not unreasonable to expect your own government to act on countless commitments to domestic production, nor is it too much to ask that they remove the barriers of their own making that continually undermine food producers of their purpose.
Safe, affordable, and nutritious poultry is half the meat the nation eats. We are fast approaching 1000 days of our “new” trading regime with the European Union, a regime that promised “fair and free-flowing trade” that has managed to facilitate anything but. Dithering and indecision over matters of basic food safety and food security by pushing back the implementation of food import controls for a fifth time reflects a concerning pattern of governance that must urgently be addressed – particularly should Britain still want a poultry industry this time next year.
That food security has a higher profile is a good thing but citing inflation as reason to delay controls is nothing more than a get-out-of-jail free card. The scars of a cost of production crisis where high costs are now baked into all areas of the supply chain – from feed to energy to labour – means 8 million households are on a financial cliff edge. This derives from a long-standing inability from Government to facilitate routes for investment and prioritise fairness in the supply chain, whether that be the strength of domestic production or the ability to withstand risk. This means that even as inflation slows down, the cost of production and rising interest rates keep the pressure on. Delaying controls does not mitigate that. If anything, costly and disproportionate trade barriers continue to hinder investment and inhibit growth for the industry feeding the nation, where the impact will only continue to be felt on people’s plates.
In the first five months of 2023 production dropped 21,000 tonnes, proof keeping food prices low at the jeopardy of production is not keeping people fed. At the same time the value of our exports to the EU are down 50% and additional administration, like OV-signed export health certificates, have cost industry £55million a year. Ultimately all points of our supply chain are suffering the consequences of inconsistent and insufficient leadership in relation to the immediate costly burdens of our “new” trading environment. Note this is a system EU exporters and UK importers are yet to feel the weight of. They continue to enjoy a competitive advantage whilst our exporters wrestle with the same unlevel playing field they were accused of not being prepared for nearly 1000 days ago.
We all know investment in domestic production – promoting a secure supply of food grown right at home – is what will move us through this period of economic and political uncertainty, but the catch is that it is this uncertainty that is limiting producers’ capacity to invest. The sheer lack of economic confidence makes it is easier for Government to prioritise cheaper imports than throw their weight (and wallet) behind world class standards of British poultry, labelling that as ‘food security.’ Of course, trade will always have a vital role to play, but undercutting domestic production and introducing a two-tiered food system is not food security. That is pricing people out of British food.
The cost of not having reciprocal checks in place is greater than the burdens that come with them if ensuring access to affordable British food is the priority. No one wants additional checks but, equally, there are no easy wins or small bills in building a sustainable food system. If the goal for British food production is to feed people quality and affordable food whilst contributing to a liveable climate for all, there needs to be momentum behind equalising trade between importers and exporters. Doing so prioritises the long-term viability of domestic production, ensures fair and competitive trade, and keeps food moving – particularly in the absence of an SPS Agreement, in which these burdens could be addressed, and checks reduced and simplified. There is no food security in an unlevel playing field, where these trade barriers will continue to bite into the viability of our industry until there is nothing left to chew.
First published in The House Magazine.