Kirsty Finlayson is South West Ambassador for the Conservative Environment Network and former Director of Communications for the British Conservation Alliance.
This month, Asda abandoned its pledge to sell only British beef – a promise made only three months previously. The retailer said the U-turn was the result of higher beef prices, and that it would now sell both Irish and British-produced beef in its stores (Irish beef is said to be around 20 per cent cheaper).
Although Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Co-Op, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons have maintained their commitment to sell exclusively British beef, the news is symbolic of a bigger issue facing society.
Whilst the UK has always had a special trading and immigration relationship with Ireland, should we be offshoring food production in the first place? What about from further afield?
Buying homegrown food benefits British farmers, consumers, animal welfare and our environment. British farming is worth £109 billion, employing 3.8 million people.
But we currently import 50 per cent of our food and animal feed, worth £18 billion. Whilst Brexit has opened up the UK to trade deals with countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is surely unnecessary to import food products which are available here.
Introducing import and export tariffs on certain products would incentivise domestic production, consumption and trade, encouraging locally-sourced food. It would also reduce reliance on transnational trade in the midst of global crises.
And this sort of self-sufficiency should be prioritised. The UK Food Security Report, published in December 2021, was the first in a series of regular publications to appear under a new duty in the Agriculture Act 2020 to report to Parliament on British food security at least once every three years.
The Report notes the complexities and dependencies of the UK’s food supply chain, alongside the risks of just-in-time food supplies. An entire chapter is dedicated to British food supply sources, with food security being defined as “strong and consistent domestic production of food combined with a diversity of supply sources that avoids overreliance on any one source”.
Although it is recognised that British consumer preferences include a range of products that cannot be grown in the UK, and key products are valuable for export (whisky being the UK’s most valuable food, feed and drink export), geographic proximity should be given higher priority in the context of low-value short shelf-life products.
We should also avoid offshoring production and associated risks of lower production standards. This was seen most recently last year with concerns expressed by the RSPCA in relation to New Zealand products not meeting current UK standards.
It is not uncommon, for example, for journey times for live animals in Australia to exceed 24 hours without access to feed or water. In comparison, HM Government has consulted on reducing domestic journey times in the UK to eight hours. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry launched into the Australia free trade deal in December will examine whether the deal will reflect the UK’s commitment to high animal welfare.
Perhaps even more importantly, in the wake of COP26 taking place in the UK and global leaders’ dire warnings, we should be focusing our consumption instead on home grown food for the good of our planet. Eating locally-sourced food decreases the ecological footprint of the human diet and shorter food value chains reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the production, processing, transportation, storage and distribution phases.
Environmental labelling is likely to encourage people to eat locally produced food. Although environmental food labelling legislation to-date has only been initiated by Canada (Chris Grayling’s private members’ bill in 2020 sadly did not pass before the end of the parliamentary session), the European Commission is scheduled to put forward a proposal for an EU-wide food labelling scheme by the end of 2022.
In the meantime, such an informational intervention is likely to be industry-led here by non-profit organisations such as Foundation Earth. Whilst many will choose to cut down on meat and dairy consumption, the environmental footprint of British meat in general is generally lower than elsewhere – cows can be grass-fed, and British weather has proven us to be very good at growing grass.
Indeed, ruminant agriculture is the only means of producing food from grasslands, which are themselves important habitats capable of locking up a great deal of soil carbon.
More domestically-produced food also has the potential to open up entirely new sectors, encouraging innovation and investment in the UK. In order to feed people locally in an increasingly urbanised world, vertical farming should be encouraged through provision of inhabitable brownfield sites to bring farming closer to people.
Whilst pilot vertical farms have so far been limited to wealthy cities such as Tokyo and New York, investment has been promising elsewhere, with start-up Bowery Farming raising $300 million in its latest funding round. This meets the Conservative values of conservation and capitalism simultaneously.
It is now crucial, more than ever, for retailers to champion British farmers. Whilst many changes can be industry-led by those supermarkets backing British, there is also plenty that the Government can be doing to to help farmers, businesses, and consumers.