Britain ‘sleepwalking’ into food dependency from overseas countries

Warning from national food and agriculture specialist that self-sufficiency in home-grown food in the UK could fall to worrying 50%

FOOD SECURITY WARNING: Duncan Swift, National Food and Agriculture Specialist at UK top 10 accountancy and advisory firm Azets. He warns that Britain is ‘sleepwalking’ towards total dependency on food imports to feed its population of nearly 68 million.

 Concerns have been raised that Britain is “sleepwalking” towards total dependency on food imports to feed its population of nearly 68 million.

The farming industry is already close to its lowest income in modern times – and not enough attention is being paid by policymakers to the importance of agri-food self-sufficiency, a sector specialist warns.

“It only takes a trade or physical war in some distance place to throttle supplies to our island – and we all know how full of unpleasant surprises the world is today,” said Duncan Swift, the national food and agriculture specialist with Azets, a UK top 10 accountancy and advisory firm.

“Britain is sleepwalking towards total dependency on food imports; some of us have already had a frightening foretaste of shortages – supermarket shelves were empty of fruit, veg and meat during pandemic lockdowns.

“Does the British public realise how close to catastrophe they really are? There is nothing more basic than food. I and food supply experts feel like canaries in the coal mine.”

A ripening wheat field in southern England.

Explaining cause-and-effect issues, Duncan said that many farming and horticultural businesses – the squeezed middle – have thrown in the towel, unable to make money because of agri-inflation, and sold or applied their land to other uses, such as for development or green energy schemes, or have decided to pause activity whilst they decide what to do next.

He added: “We are seeing this with glasshouses in the UK – many producers growing cucumbers, tomatoes and salads have halted the latest planting cycle because it is uneconomical. In turn, these further increases our dependence on imports, particularly from intensive growing garden markets such as Spain and Holland.

“The UK also has a concentration of its top 20% of producers producing 80% of the output, with the latent risk that if they can readily diversify revenue streams away from using their land to produce foodstuffs to more profitable ventures it will accelerate the decline in self-sufficiency.

“The big tell-tale warning is the self-sufficiency percentage – in the Second World War, Britain got close to 100% under the Dig for Victory campaign and rationing. This has now dropped to 58% and could well fall to 55%.

“With people opting out of growing as a livelihood, my expectation is that we will be getting into the dangerous territory of 50% which then brings into play serious questions over food security and catastrophes if imports suddenly dry up due to trade wars, climate breakdown or geopolitical flare-ups where hostile actors are imperilling shipping lanes.

“The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) asserts this drop in self-sufficiency is not a problem because we have secure food import lines that make up the shortfall.

“But the global events of the past few years, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East, to the pandemic and attacks on Red Sea shipments, prove that reliance on third parties to feed nearly 68 million island people is not actually a sensible food security strategy.

“There is a lack of an evident plan, Whilst a national food strategy was published in 2021, it was not adopted as one of the key recommendations was to tax salt and sugar, which the PM at the time, Boris Johnson, kicked into touch.

“In light of recent global events, Britain needs to commit to a national food strategy that anticipates supply issues, identifies productive land, steers in the national interest, with nudge policies, and starts reversing the downward self-sufficiency trend before the unimaginable happens – families in one of the top global economies going hungry.”

According to Defra figures, based on 2022 data, 58% of food originated in Britain, with 23% from the EU, 4% respectively from Africa, Asia and South America, 3% respectively from the USA and rest of Europe and 1% from Australasia.

Defra data for that year showed 53% of fresh vegetables consumed in the UK were grown domestically, with 39% from the EU and 8% from the rest of the world.

Just 16% of fruit consumed in the UK originated domestically, with 28% from the EU and 56% from the rest of the world.

In total, according to Defra figures, the agri-food sector employs 4.2m people – 13.4% of UK employment – and contributes £128.3bn.

Duncan said: “Voting in the general election every few years may be seen as a major way of deciding how Britain’s future is shaped but it is actually what we put in our shopping trolley or basket on a daily or weekly basis that can bring positive or negative consequences for food security and jobs.

“Does it make sense to import lamb, potatoes and blueberries from oceans away, with all the associated carbon shipping miles, when it can be sourced from here?

“Perhaps there is scope to reinvigorate a Buy British campaign which resonates with newer generations across social media – a number of towns and villages have run successful ‘shop local’ campaigns and it cannot be beyond the wit of Westminster to do the same at a national level.

“It is not just the consumer, though. The supermarket chains have the power to help with UK food security by choosing to stock home-grown as much as possible – the combined grocery market shared by the largest four food and drink retailers was just under 66% in October 2023. The influence they wield in the agri-food sector is enormous.”

Duncan backed recommendations made in a report last summer by a House of Commons Committee on food security – that the government should develop a suite of food security indicators that influence food security.

“A dashboard, if you like,” he said, “so it is clear to everyone whether we could be fed as a nation if ‘events’ happen. We want green lights, not the orange ones that would be flashing warnings if we had this dashboard now.

“There is now even more urgency on this – the Office for National Statistics says the UK population is projected to reach 70 million by the middle of 2026, 10 years faster than previously estimated, and to nearly 74m by 2036.

“These figures must surely make food self-sufficiency and security policies much higher priorities for Westminster and Whitehall on the national agenda.”

Last year Duncan spoke of how rampant inflation of up to 30% in agricultural input costs reversed decades of falling prices, driving the UK’s farming crisis, with various forecasters anticipate a steep drop in farm income, from £6 billion in 2021 to £3.5bn this year.

He said farming income appears to be going backwards – the £3.35bn income forecasted for 2023 would be around the same figure as it was 16 years ago in 2007.

Based on government figures, the UK agriculture industry, covering 71% of UK land, had 216,000 farm holdings in 2021 and employed just over 467,000 people; in 1960 there were nearly double the amount of farm holdings.

Average profit for all farms in 2021 was £50,900 but that figure is masked by farm subsidies, known as Direct Payments, which made up just over half of profit.

The average net income from Direct Payments was about £27,400, which means that tens of thousands of farms will struggle once the subsidies are withdrawn and agri-inflation continues to pile up the cost of farming inputs such as machinery, fuel, fertilisers, feeds, finance, building materials and labour.