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The UK’s broken food system requires radical change

Record inflation for milk and other essentials demands immediate action, but Britain’s food security needs more than a quick-fix.

By India Bourke

That the UK is facing a food “austerity” crisis is no longer in doubt. Food price inflation rocketed to 12.7 per cent in July, 2.9 percentage points higher than June – the highest month-to-month increase in more than 20 years. This was in large part due to the high energy costs passed on from the war in Ukraine. Many items have risen by even more: oven chips from Morrisons are now £1.49 compared with 85p last year. A pint of milk has crossed the £1 threshold for the first time ever in some supermarkets.

As the cold weather kicks in, energy bills are on the verge of deepening the pressure on household budgets, while the impact of drought could push food prices up further still. Nearly a fifth of respondents to a survey across England, Wales and Northern Ireland were identified as food-insecure. The Trussell Trust charity warns that their food banks have provided a parcel every 13 seconds in recent months, and that they expect that number to rise.

Polly Jones, the trust’s head of policy and research, told the New Statesman, “Soaring food and fuel costs are affecting us all, but for families on the very lowest incomes this cost-of-living crisis means so much more. It means having to make impossible decisions between putting food on the table or affording internet access for the children to do their homework.”

What should politicians do? The short-term answer, many argue, has to be more financial support – and fast. “We’re urgently calling on the government to deliver a long-term commitment in the social security system to ensure everyone can afford the essentials,” Jones added. This should include freezing rising energy bills so that people have “money in their pockets” to feed their families, said Labour’s food minister, Daniel Zeichner. “The answer is to sort out the economics underlying the crisis – and the energy bills are the big hit.”

[See also: The UK’s hosepipe bans are nothing compared to global water shortages]

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Would universal basic income help?

Suggested tax cuts proposed by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will not help those most in need, warns the think tank IPPR. But simply introducing a universal basic income, as some suggest, also poses problems. Extending payments to all is beset by drawbacks, believe Zeichner and others – from artificially helping those who don’t need financial assistance, to failing to ensure the food that people buy is sustainable and healthy.

Furthermore, unlike with rising energy bills, there is no single place in the food industry from which to extract a windfall tax to pay for it. The top grain-trading companies, which recently posting record profits, could be an option. However much of the rise in food prices can also be traced to the higher costs of energy, via fertiliser and plastics.

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Is more free food the answer?

More free food is one option. Greater support for already struggling food banks – including better government record-keeping of demand at a local, rather than regional, level – could be provided to help respond to the crisis. The retail deals and discounts from the government’s Help for Households scheme could expand, individuals and businesses can sign up for food-sharing apps like Olio, and free schools meals could be made universal to help boost take-up. Yet food banks were already struggling to keep up with demand before the 18 per cent projection for inflation next year. Plus free food can also be stigmatising, with the nutritional quality of free food at food banks often poor and highly processed, said the New Economics Foundation’s principal fellow Anna Coote.

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The expansion of food banks and food waste distribution is ultimately a signal of market failure, added Tim Lang, the emeritus professor of food policy at City University, London. Instead, alongside more immediate financial support this winter, there also needs to be a wider shift in UK food culture, Lang said. “We have to aim for what we call a ‘multi-criteria’ food system.” One that meets social and environmental needs and is not just fixated on cheapness.

The case for systemic change

This is the concern underlying the current crisis: British farmers are struggling too – and while food is increasingly unaffordable, it is also too cheap. The war in Ukraine has hit the global price of fertiliser and grain hard. Post-Brexit labour shortages have led to devastating culls of pigs and rising disease levels are resulting in widespread deaths of poultry and wild birds. The Europe-wide drought means farmers are having to support livestock with winter supplies already, and half the potato crop is expected to fail; climate change will only bring further hardship.

As Stephen Dennis of the Farming Community Network told the New Statesman, “uncertainty around whether the government really wants food security, or whether they want to trade it off in the global market via foreign trade deals which undermine UK standards” is another issue putting strain on the industry. Food prices have been artificially low for too long, he explained, at the expense of the nation’s ability to self-sustain in healthy, high-welfare produce: “For decades agriculture hasn’t had an inflation on its product[s] – so food prices have been very low, while everything else has been rising.”

Fixing food poverty in the long run will also require “levelling up” British farming, suggests the Green Alliance think tank in a new report. Instead of simply producing “more” food, explained its policy director Dustin Benton, production should be matched both to landscape-type and to diet. On unproductive land, farm payments should go instead towards carbon storage and nature recovery schemes. Meanwhile, on productive land, less should be used for already abundant sugars, salt and fats (not to mention biofuels), and put instead towards producing more fruit and veg. 

What would whole-system change look like in terms of food?

A strategy called “universal basic services”, or UBS, has been touted by researchers at University College London (UCL, and by the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto) as one way to ensure people always have access to life’s essential services – from shelter to childcare, transport and food. In this system, unlike with universal basic income, money is only provided to some citizens, who then provide services to others.

[See also: Can interest rate rises reduce the UK’s “astronomical” inflation?]

The finance could be accompanied by regulation, said Coote, to ensure the quality of food is protected too. For example, expanding free meals in public institutions such as hospitals and prisons could boost demand for meeting certain environmental sourcing standards, while retailers and advertisers could be regulated to encourage healthier diets.

Such a whole-system approach could thereby also support food producers by linking them directly to community distribution schemes. “Organic production can be linked to local organisations and supply chains that offer healthier food alternatives at a local level,” explained Professor Henrietta Moore, director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity. “It supports UK farmers to negotiate decent prices for their produce, currently undermined by large supermarkets.”

There remains, however, little detail about what exactly such a food system would look like, beyond scaling up examples of existing community projects or state services – from community growers such as Scotland’s MooFood community growers, to affordable neighbourhood food clubs like Your Local Pantry.

What is clear though is that change will be needed beyond simply firefighting the latest inflation crisis. More cash support might help people through the winter, but climate change’s deepening threat to global production is only going to push food insecurity further up the agenda.

Meanwhile, so many foundational UK services have been privatised or had their budgets cut, explained Lang with specific reference to failing water companies, that underinvestment is undermining our basic infrastructure. “Political timidity is part of our problem,” he said. At a fundamental level, “fear of rocking boats and promising too much” is holding back the long-overdue securing of Britain’s food’s future.

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