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“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.

(UNFAO definition, World Food Summit, 1996)

Food security covers a broad spectrum of issues from food prices to food fraud.  However, the House of Commons Westminster Hall debate on 6 January 2015 is expected to centre upon food security in relation to the resilience of the farming industry in relation to recent market conditions and the impact of this on the overall food security of the UK. 

This Library briefing covers recent farming issues as well as the wider policy context of food security.

Food security depends on being able to source food from a variety of countries with a diversity of supply enhancing security by spreading risks, widening options and keeping prices competitive.

Food supply in the UK is classed by the Government as a critical national infrastructure (CNI) sector. Defra leads on the policy and prepares a sector resilience plan annually. The overall planning process is co-ordinated by the Contingency Planning Secretariat in the Cabinet Office

Over half of the food consumed in the UK is UK grown and the nation has a good diversity of suppliers from Europe and around the globe.  However, it is widely acknowledged that there an opportunity for the UK to import less indigenous fruit and vegetables. The UK only supplied 23% of its fruit and vegetable needs in 2014.

There is no universally agreed, optimum level of self-sufficiency. Too much reliance on domestic production increases vulnerability to price and weather shocks.

The UK Government considers UK food supply to be resilient because of the size, diversity, and strong contingency planning in the food industry sectors which has responded well to potential disruptions to supply in recent years e.g. flooding.

Farming unions across the UK called two crisis summits this summer to highlight how current, global market volatility is affected UK dairy and lamb farmers particularly. Defra statistics from October 2015 confirmed a decline in the profitability of almost all farming sectors between March 2014 and February 2015.[1]  However, the long term outlook e.g. for dairy is good with strong exports and global growth in the sector.

Assistance to UK farmers this year has included:

  • A £26.2m share of the EU dairy package – the third largest Member State allocation – paid according to milk production on UK farms.
  • Increase in tax averaging from 2 to 5 years
  • Basic Payment Scheme subsides under the Common Agricultural Policy have started to be paid across the UK. The Rural Payments Agency has already paid over 44,400 English farmers their full allocation. Scottish farmers are being paid in two allocations to account for the complexities of moving to the required area-based system in Scotland.
  • Emergency funding of up to £20,000 each for farmers affected by the Christmas 2015 floods

UK farming unions continue to highlight the need for longer term contracts to aid resilience to market volatility and mandatory country of origin labelling for dairy produce to promote British produce.  They would also like to see the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) expanded to cover indirect suppliers (e.g. only around 3% of farmers directly supply milk to retailers). The UK Government is due to review the remit of the GCA in 2016 and a change in remit is supported by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA).

The EFRA Committee has considered all aspects of UK food security in its reports, Food Security (June 2014), Food Security: Demand, Consumption and Waste (January 2015), Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK (2009)

The Committee has highlighted that the UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, but that this situation will not last unless the Government plans now for future changes in UK weather patterns and the changing global demand for food.

The Committee on Climate Change’s latest report to Parliament, 2015 Progress in Preparing for Climate Change: 2015 Report to Parliament (June 2015) highlights that there has been a decline in investment in England into research and development of new approaches and technologies that would boost the resilience of agriculture and forestry to climate change.

The UK Government published a UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies in July 2013 developed with the scientific community and the food and farming industry. This is part of the overall industry strategy.

The UK Government and Devolved Administrations co-ordinate research through the UK Global Food Security programme

[1] Defra, Farm business income by type of farm in England 2014/15, 29 October 2015

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