The UK’s Food System Isn’t Resilient, And It Needs To Be




Luckily, technology offers a way to reduce reliance on imports, and make food production more sustainable.

Resilience. As a personal attribute, it’s been talked about a lot over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has tested all of us mentally. But it’s also the word that has great relevance for something as essential to human life as good mental health: food.

Since the beginning of the year, when the Brexit transition period ended, we have become used to news stories about disruption to food supply chains. Thankfully, the end of easy access to EU markets in January has not caused widespread food shortages, but the impact has been very real for specific places, notably Northern Ireland, and industries, such as the UK’s shellfish exporters.

While the subject has been discussed endlessly since 2016, it still seems to have come as a surprise to many people just how much our food system is truly international.

We face particular issues in the UK. Around half of the food we consume is imported, with the figure higher for fruit and vegetables. We have come to view this as the norm, and consumers’ tastes have adapted to the incredible range of produce on offer. Tesco in 2019 year reported double-digit rises in demand for purple sweet potatoes, fresh turmeric and dudhi (an asian vegetable similar to courgette or gourd).

Once exotic ingredients, still not commonly grown in the UK, are seen as everyday. According to YouGov, the single best-known of all vegetables and herbs among consumers is basil, which typically comes to us from countries like Egypt.

This is a situation which has developed over a long time. While consumers may not have noticed the workings of global supply chains and friction-free trade with the EU, they have certainly made use of them. The end of globalisation has been over-hyped, but there are reasons to be concerned about food security in the UK.

Pressures on agriculture started well before this January. Last summer, the National Farmers Union claimed that Covid had pushed labour costs up by 15%. This fits with a longer trend. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now under 2 million EU workers in the UK, down from 2.3 million in September 2018.

The fall in the value of the pound since the referendum in 2016 was already making the UK less attractive to EU workers, and Covid seems to have prompted many to return to their home country. Attempts were made to get furloughed workers to help out on farms during the first wave of the pandemic, but it’s reasonable to expect that people will want to go back to similar jobs to the ones they left, when the economy recovers.

There is plenty more that could be said about the changes in shopping and eating habits caused by Covid, but we will only understand the full implications with time.

You might be wondering what I am trying to prove with all this. The point is that the UK food system at the moment could be characterised by another word, the opposite of resilience: fragility.

So what’s the answer? As you might have guessed, I have one to suggest. Technology can allow us to augment and complement traditional agriculture to grow some of the food we currently import in a more sustainable way.

One of the most promising technologies in this area is vertical farming. At Harvest London, we grow herbs and vegetables to order for our customers. Because we do so in a controlled environment we don’t need pesticides, use 95% less water and no single-use plastic packaging. The scope to improve efficiency and use even less inputs is huge.

The industry is still relatively small in the UK, although growing rapidly, and we have seen from other countries (primarily the US, but also Europe), that investors are getting interested. Investments of over $100m have recently been secured separately by an American and a German company.

Anyone in this area has to be wary of over-promising. Farming in a controlled environment will remain a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, fields for the foreseeable future. We shouldn’t see this as a competition. Traditional farming too is becoming more efficient through use of sensors and data. It can also only be a good thing to make consumers more aware of where their food comes from and encourage them to eat seasonal British food.

All technologies which later become ubiquitous start as a niche. As Henry Ford supposedly said (let’s not worry too much if he actually did), “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, not motorcars. Vertical farming may not be how people expect their food to be grown, but they do want great-tasting food which does less harm to the environment, and technology can help us provide it.

If you’re interested in finding out more about vertical farming, or you’re a company wanting to make your supply chain more sustainable, we’d love to hear from you


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