With the price of poultry feed rising by the week, British food production must show leadership to weather the storm.
Following uncertainty and disruption in global wheat supply, British poultry production must show leadership in resolving systemic issues so domestic food production can weather the storm, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When asked about the UK’s reliance on Russia for energy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new strategy promoting “self-reliance,” saying:
“The more prosperous we will be, the more sustainable our energy prices will be, and that will benefit the UK consumer.”
It appears to be a simple equation: investment in domestic production offers security for both consumers and producers. Replace ‘energy’ with ‘food’ and it is the story Britain’s food producers have been telling for a very long time.
2 Sisters Food Group Chief Executive Ronald Kers has warned that the ‘food production clock is ticking,’ bringing gravity to the promise of hyperinflation. Mr Kers has predicted up to a 15% increase to the cost of food by the summer. The reason is that production costs are spiralling upwards as a result of ongoing pressures. The unresolved effects of Brexit and the costs of Covid are now being exacerbated by war in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the conflict we have seen millions of pounds added to the weekly cost of chicken feed. Combine that with the expense of mitigating Brexit barriers, a shortage of labour, and bird flu challenges, we have a cost that has to land somewhere.
With regard to the war in Ukraine the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for British poultry meat is organic production. The majority of organic wheat is sourced from Ukraine and that supply route is evaporating quickly. Restricted access to organic wheat plus increased costs across the board may see organic poultry production becoming unviable. Whilst this would be frustrating for those who want to purchase organic poultry, it is a deeply concerning indicator of how all supply chains are coming under immense pressure. Food security is back on top of the agenda and we – the national ‘we’ of businesses, Government, and consumers – have to both recognise the importance of British food for long-term national security, and invest more money and effort in low impact, high productivity food and farming.
That food security has a higher profile is a good thing, and its two components of self-sufficiency and trade have been talked about by poultry meat producers for a very long time. Poultry is half the meat eaten in the UK every year and we rely on international supply chains. For example, while we are a huge purchaser of feed quality wheat from UK farmers it does need to be supplemented from overseas sources; and when it comes to products, we export a lot of dark meat that the British consumer does not favour. We should be bolstering what we can produce in this country and using those strong supply chains to facilitate trade.
Perversely, the Global Britain mentality has it that we can import the food we need at a cheaper cost to consumers. This is wrong and must be challenged wherever it appears. Reliance on imports only creates a nation that is dependent on the will and whims of others. We would hand over all control of quantity and price to other nations who, even the most trusted trading partners, will prioritise their own citizens in the face of global crises. We are about 60% self-sufficient in food so there is no way the British food system can isolate itself from events abroad, and to go lower would seriously compromise the country’s ability to weather the global pressures we are now feeling. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has magnified that pressure – as if there was not enough with Brexit red tape, commercial disadvantage in trading with the EU, the effects of Covid and a labour shortage.
Britain’s poultry producers have long talked about mitigating challenges and absorbing increasing production costs to keep food on the tables of their consumers. Wider factors in the cost-of-living crisis, like rising energy prices, are pushing the country towards food insecurity; let’s not forget that these were having an effect long before Russia invaded Ukraine.
It is concerning to hear the Government urge people in this Britain to accept “enduring hardships” as a way of ‘doing our bit’ to help Ukraine when there is an opportunity to look inwardly, invest in the resilience of our supply chains and take control of our national food security. Fixing solvable problems like SPS barriers and labour shortages will take the pressure off those feeding the nation, help stabilise production costs for poultry that people depend on, and therefore allow both businesses and consumers to weather this storm. Actually solving underlying systemic problems in British food production – whilst we still can – would be far more beneficial for everyone.
Instead, we get more trade deals, which are announced as “supporting” our food security but actually risk doing the complete opposite. When trade deals with the likes of Australia and New Zealand come at the cost of domestic food production, undercutting British farmers and food producers, and introducing a two-tiered food system, they risk a longer-term impact. That is not food security. That is pricing people in Britain out of British food.
The most reliable source of food we have is what we produce at home. If we are serious about addressing the growing risks of food insecurity in Britain, we have to explore it through the lens of British self-sufficiency. Trade should support our world class standards of domestic production, not replace them. Trade has its role to play in British food security, but at the core of it must be a reliable source of homegrown food.
To weather the impact of this conflict we have to get our own house in order. That means fixing underlying problems in British food production to ensure the poultry that people depend on remains accessible. We need to see Government actively honouring its commitment to British poultry production, and therefore British food security, by investing in the resilience of our supply chains. That translates into easing the burdens on the backs of Britain’s food producers with policies or political interventions that support domestic food supply.
With a stronger supply of homegrown food, as PM Johnson says “the more prosperous we will be, the more sustainable our prices will be, and that will benefit the UK consumer.”
There is space to bolster the heart of a reliable domestic food supply in times where increased prices, pandemics and conflict put pressure on global trade. Whether it be funding to allow for investment in automation to maximise efficiency, or putting British food in social eating settings, Government has to immediately make a commitment to British food production.