Ensuring the food security of the UK

Ensuring the food security of the UK

In June, our Director and Fellow Jonathan Blanchard Smith gave evidence to the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Business in a Pandemic (Covid) World. The hearing focussed on food security and the integrity of supply chains. An edited – and slightly telegraphic – version of his comments follows, which also covers some questions attendees raised.

Futurists go through a deep and rigorous process to determine a range of possible futures. We conduct horizon scanning to research topic areas (and I thank my colleague and SAMI Fellow David Lye for his horizon scan for this meeting) and analyse trends. There are many trends, which we merge into groups called megatrends.

We can take a risk-based approach – though it’s worth noting that currently, the UK does not include food security as a national risk. (On the 9th of June, it was announced that food security would be included on the national risk register).

Jonathan reviewed some of the trends we have seen come through during the pre-work for the meeting.

It is thought that the world’s population will fall towards the end of the century. Countries like Italy and Thailand are forecast to shrink by 50% absent migration.

We are in a polynodal world where the West is no longer dominant. The UK has both trade friction and a reduction in employment. We have seen a decline in both imported and home-grown food. The CAP finishes in 2023, and we do not know what will replace it but can imagine it will be less well funded.

Hopefully, the European conflict caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a blip. It should lead to a resolution. Conflicts from issues like climate change are less resolvable. Also, a weak signal – a term we use for an emerging trend – is the use of food as a weapon of war (this may become a strong signal, as Russia’s invasion has shown). This has a global impact: for example, 80% of Egypt’s grain supply comes from Russia and Ukraine. We have seen that food supply issues quickly lead to civil disorder.

Additionally, there is tension between free trade and protectionism.

The climate crisis should be evident: heat rises, floods, and the like, change the capacity of the land to produce food. In the short term for the UK the climate will get hotter. In the long term it will affect our food sources. We need to prepare for tipping points which cause a cascade of reactions.

Biotechnology can help us support food production. Countries hostile to immigration like Australia and China have automated their harvesting process. Robots can compensate for the lack of workers.

Can we have vat-grown meat and genetically modified plants? Our life sciences industry is world-leading so we need to use it. Biotechnology could be a great benefit for the UK. The development of vat or cell-grown meat gives the opportunity to stop putting so much grain into meat production and reduce methane emissions from livestock. We will also have to make good inroads into controlling food waste.

Social attitudes are less relevant in this area except for the change in attitude as the generation pass. Young people are not older people; they have different perspectives and will take their ideas forward. They are more obese, but they smoke and drink less. They are more multinational in outlook but more despairing.

Polarisation is a real potential issue. During the Ukrainian crisis, we saw that some countries stopped exporting food. The UK food industry relies on imports, so if our suppliers stop exporting, we are in trouble.

No look at the future is sound unless it includes wild cards – the so-called “Black Swans”. A few of these, some more likely than others, in this area include ecological collapse, covid for crops, or a catastrophic methane release that speeds up climate change.

Existing pressures (Brexit, Ukraine, Covid) mean UK farmers cannot get people to plant and harvest crops. If this cannot be resolved, it will create serious food security issues within the next few years. Why, after all, would farmers plant crops if they could not harvest them?

In the future, we need to consider and prepare for a situation where there may not be enough food or where it is so expensive it becomes difficult to afford? Crop failure and import price hikes could cause hunger in the UK. If we get the biotechnology industry right, that could both benefit the UK and give us an export product.

Questions afterwards covered supply, biotechnology, and resilience issues.

Food is an example of a supply chain. If there is hunger in the UK, it follows that there will have been famine elsewhere. The direct impact on the UK would be increased migration. People do not hang around to fight wars: they leave and go somewhere safe. If there is famine in Africa and severe impacts from climate change, people will move North. The question for the UK and EU is how to manage the migration pressures into Europe?

There are issues with biotechnology. In the short term (like the next couple of years), it’s essential to set the regulatory environment so that the industry is ready to start large-scale production when needed. There needs to be a debate on issues like gene editing and vat-grown meat, then set the regulatory space and let the industry get on with it. The response to the pandemic showed a helpful approach: government needs to find 50 projects in a good state of readiness, invest in them, and see which ones come good.

There is also a need to ensure security of supply. If the government is comfortable with potential interruption to supply, then offshoring is a route forward. The risk is that foreign governments will re-route food to feed their own people first.

The single most helpful thing that the UK government could do at this stage would be to view food security and supply chains as a resilience issue and give them the same amount of care and attention it provides to other matters of national resilience. A whole-system approach, based on the understanding that food security and supply chains are critical to the nation, would ensure attention, funding and foresight – all of which are sorely needed.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.

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