Food security and me

Why food and drink manufacture matters to every person in the UK, and beyond.

Food production is the UK’s biggest industry and plays a major part in the health of the economy. And with the rising cost of food, the environmental impact of agriculture and other food-related issues such as the rising prevalence of obesity, awareness of food-related issues is almost certainly higher than it has been for decades.

Modern food  production combines complex technological, political and societal issues.  Image: iStockphoto

Modern food production combines complex technological, political and societal issues. Image: iStockphoto

Indeed, ‘food security’ appears to be an esoteric, even politically-correct term, but it is now according to reports commonly used in academia and the media to describe a wealth of problems, issues and positions.

Hence, food security affects everyone in the UK. That’s because food production, trade, the environmental impact of agriculture in the face of climate change, and the factors that affect food prices are all largely global problems – there is no single solution that any one country can enact to ensure access to cheap, affordable, safe and nutritious food.

What food security means for UK shoppers

People feel the impact of food security issues most immediately in their pockets when they buy food. This is the same in the UK as it is across the world. However, individuals in developed countries are better able to ride out food price fluctuations because they spend a significantly smaller amount of their income on food than people in developing countries.

Price is the most important issue for most people when people buy their food. Consumers may be aware of environmental concerns such as pesticide and fertiliser use, or prefer organic brands for some food types, and count ‘air miles’ and make other energy-centric considerations, but ultimately the power of the pound (and likely any local currency) prevails.

Food price  rises have affected UK consumers more than those in mainland Europe. Image: Defra

Food price rises have affected UK consumers more than those in mainland Europe. Image: Defra

It’s not difficult to see why: between June 2007-11 the price of food has increased by just over a quarter (more than 12% in real terms). Looking back further, to before the recent food price spikes, from 1998-2009, food prices rose by 33% while the mean income of low-income households rose by 22% (before housing costs) over the same period. So people are spending much more on food that they did only a few years ago, and food and non-alcoholic drink prices have risen by considerably more in the UK since June 2007 than in the rest of the EU (see graph below).

However, balanced against these recent rises, the average UK household now devotes around 9% of its expenditure on food, down from 16% in 1984 (and much, much more before that). Food prices followed a steady decline between 1975 and 2007; a real terms fall of 32%, so historically at least the price of food is still much less than it was decades ago.

Your country needs food

The food and drink production and supply chain is a major part of the UK economy, accounting for 7% of GDP, employing 3.7M people, and generating £80Bn per year. Food and drink expenditure reached £182Bn in 2010.

But the UK is not self-sufficient in food production. In 2010, the UK produced 73% of ‘indigenous-type foods’, and is about 60% self-sufficient when exports and local consumption are set against production. This means that the world’s food production and supply problems are shared problems, because the UK relies on trading partners to fill productions gaps. The issue of whether the UK should, or can, grow more food has been tackled by Chris Pollock in this blog post.

Despite the fact that the UK is not self-sufficient in food production, it is a food-exporting country, particularly for cereals and dairy products. Drinks are the UK’s largest export category with a total export value of £4.9Bn in 2009 – much of this is made up of the extremely successful Scottish whisky industry.

Your food and your health

Food affects our health in many ways: besides raw calories, food contains vitamins, nutrients and other beneficial constituents such as fibre.

A key component of the food security challenge is to provide nutritious food, not just calories. But with millions undernourished in the developing world while the developed world is being rolled over by an obesity epidemic, it could be argued that the role of food in making us and keeping us healthy is failing in many areas.

For example, in England 61% of people aged 16 or over and 30% of children were overweight or obese in 2009 – but there is evidence that the rate in adults is levelling off.

UK residents  are nearly the most overweight in Europe. Image: Defra

UK residents are nearly the most overweight in Europe. Image: Defra.
Click image for larger version

Again, much of this is down to price. As food inflation has bitten, fruit and vegetable consumption has fallen in the UK since 2006 (the year before the 2007-08 crisis), according to both the Health Survey for England and the Family Food Survey report.

The UK diets needs more starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, more fruit and vegetables, about the same amount of  meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, less milk and dairy and other starchy foods, and much, much less food and drink high in fat and/or sugar.

And obesity is not just a problem for developed countries. In many developing countries, an overreliance on certain food groups, typically carbohydrates, to meet calorific requirements means that health issues related to being overweight are on the rise, such as type II diabetes.

Less waste please, we’re British

Around the world, a significant amount of food is wasted, soiled or eaten by pests before it even reaches a dinner plate. This waste is further exacerbated by food that is thrown away in the home: In 2009, UK consumers spent an average of £480 per household on food each year that was then throw away – 4.1M tonnes of food nationally (ref 11, ref 13, ref 14) – or about 15% of edible food and drink purchases.

Whatever we spend it on, we waste too much. Image: Defra

Whatever we spend it on, we waste too much. Image: Defra

Meeting the food security challenge means reducing this waste. It is bad enough that pests and pathogens destroy food in the field, and that some is also lost in storage and during distribution, for perfectly healthy food and the energy spent making in (and therein) to not be used.

The good news is that waste is avoidable and there are trends moving in the right direction for UK business and industry. For instance, levels of food and drink waste have been halved by UK commercial and industrial businesses between 2003 and 2009. Furthermore, half of food waste generated by businesses in the food and drink sector is either recycled, composted or reused; the amount sent to landfill is about 8%.

On the domestic side, it is estimated that reviewing ‘best before’ labelling could save around 370,000 tonnes per year (ref 15).

Sources

  1. City University London – Rethinking Britain’s food security
  2. Defra Food Statistics Pocketbook 2011
  3. Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century (external link)
  4. WRAP – Household food and drink waste in the UK (external link)
  5. DEFRA – The Future of our Farming