Britain’s food supply: too easily taken for granted

Ralph Early, professor of the food industry at Harper Adams University, says we should be wary of taking our food supplies for granted

Living in an industrialised, consumer society we take many things for granted, often assuming that the goods we enjoy will always be available.

This is as true for food as for most other products and services. Yet for much of human history things were very different, as people could not always be confident about where their next meal would come from.

Since the mid-20th century food security in Britain has generally become more certain and today we are able to access an enormous variety of high quality, safe-to-eat foods in vast quantities as never before. The abundance we experience is of course a consequence of the development and success of our farming and food industries, which, metaphorically, are manifested as a modern day cornucopia: one for which we should always be grateful.

Historically, agricultural food materials were often transformed into long shelf-life products. A century ago pickled, potted, canned and cured foods were common fare. Fresh foods – meat, fish and seasonal fruits and vegetables – were purchased daily from neighbourhood butchers, fish-mongers and green grocers. The Second World War brought a time of economic hardship and food rationing. The British diet was limited, offering little hedonic delight. However, developments in food technology since the 1950s have yielded new and improved food processing and preservation methods, delivering many more interesting foodstuffs. In 1948 only two per cent of UK households owned a fridge, but by the mid-1970s most homes were able to store chilled and frozen foods. Consequently the food marketplace began to change such that fresh, short shelf-life and frozen foodstuffs now dominate our shopping baskets.

Today, through innovation and very significantly, integration with Europe’s food industry, Britain’s food industry has become an advanced technology, just-in-time industry supplying a diversity of superb food products. Some British food businesses still make traditional products such a meat products and cheeses, but increasingly they utilise advanced technologies. Others have invested heavily in cutting-edge technologies and are masters of innovation producing, for instance, time-saving convenience foods, such as prepared ready meals which resonate with exotic food cultures from around the world. But whatever a food business makes, we can be sure that speed and efficiency lie at the heart of their operations.

The increased use of technology by Britain’s food industry has meant that food processing equipment and materials must often be sourced abroad, particularly in Europe. Food packaging materials arriving today via the Calais-Dover link may be used tomorrow for transporting goods to customers the next day. Immediacy is everything. Delays kill businesses. The days of production for stock are long gone and few companies have the capacity to stockpile food. Supermarkets order for next day delivery or the day after. This rapidity of response is largely why British food is now of such a high quality. Quite simply, it does not sit in stores and if imported it is not held up at borders.

That Britain’s food industry is intimately connected with Europe’s is obvious. A few minutes in a supermarket will evidence the diverse foodstuffs that have made the trip across the Channel.

The gravity model of bilateral trade confirms that countries trade most successfully with their neighbours. This is why, by working with our European neighbours over the past 50 years, our food marketplace has been transformed by a multiplicity of fine foods and wines from, for instance, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. We do import foodstuffs from further afield and daily bring vegetables, salads and exotic fruits from Africa, South America and the Far East by air and sea. We also import raw materials, such as grains from European countries, North America and South America, to be processed into food ingredients, as well as soy beans and maize to feed to British farm animals. But European countries have long been the source of very many of our most enjoyable and satisfying imported foodstuffs.

In terms of our national food needs, the UK is about 60 per cent self-sufficient. We import almost half of everything we eat. Some argue that we should increase British agricultural productivity to reduce imports, but there will be limits. Certainly we cannot create more land and some foods can’t be produced in Britain. So, we would be wise to safeguard existing food trade relationships: especially long-established trade with European countries. Food supplies can be at risk of interruption, for example by wars, natural disasters and dreadful political decisions. Governments however bear the moral duty to respect their citizens’ right to food: certainly people can’t live without it.

So, we must keep our fingers crossed that whatever the future holds for Britain, our political leaders understand that their highest priority must be keeping supermarkets stocked and food on our tables. Perhaps disconcertingly, some food industry experts are not so sure this will be so.

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