person picking green cabbage
Photo by PHÚC LONG on Unsplash

Who’s in charge of making sure that our country gets fed? Most people just assume that food gets to the supermarkets, and don’t give it much thought. But the panic at the start of the pandemic should have been a wake-up call. The truth is that we have a highly complicated supply-chain and that it is largely left to the market to sort things out. But markets don’t always work in the way theorists hope, which is why Labour has been pressing the Government to get a grip and get involved. The Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF) was a useful intervention at the start of the pandemic when we began to see empty shelves in shops for the first time in a generation. FRIF served to support the logistical and technical operations across the UK supply chain. Bringing together 100 people from leading retailers, manufacturers, distributors and the whole food supply chain, it proved to be effective at raising issues and bringing industry’s weight to bear on Government to try and iron out some of the bumps in the road and ensure that the UK was resilient to shocks in the food supply chain.

Two years on, it appears that Government considers the Covid-19 crisis is officially over, despite soaring case numbers and many, many people off work. With the market shocks caused by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, as well as continuing post-Brexit problems, the entire food-supply chain continues to be under pressure. Much has been talked about the effects of the invasion of Ukraine on global wheat prices – both Ukraine and Russia produce and export substantial amounts of wheat. Whilst the UK is largely self sufficient in wheat, our food system is inevitably impacted by changing global prices and pressures on supply. But it’s not just wheat where we can expect rising prices. Higher gas prices have led to rocketing fertiliser costs – which will lead to increased prices for consumers across the board one way or another (either because farmers produce less, or because they produce the same amount with a significantly higher cost base).

How should Government respond? Companies tell me FRIF worked well because it provided a forum for players across the food system and the Government to explain the challenges that they are facing and consider how best to respond. The Government also suspended some elements of competition law which allowed for unusual co-operation in a fragmented and normally highly competitive system. There has been little public discussion about this, despite Labour attempts to force these decisions out into the open. Right now there is a strong case for more active Government. The challenges facing farmers may well lead to higher food prices down the road, but if they can’t cover rising costs, some may be forced out altogether, or reduce output, damaging our national food security. Government can’t leave feeding the nation to chance, or the mercy of stretched international supply chains.

Labour is committed to making, buying and selling more in Britain. I’m pleased that under pressure, the Government has reconvened FRIF. But we need more. Government must come forward with an active approach to delivering a comprehensive food strategy. It’s demanded by many organisations including the President of the NFU Minette Batters, and the model is set out in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Plan. But the omens aren’t good – the response to Dimbleby has been delayed for months as different factions within Government squabble.

Feeding Britain matters – it remains astonishing that the Government of the country has no plan or strategy for feeding the nation.