UK Q&A

Why are food prices, in general, still rising in the UK?
As a developed nation, why is the UK still affected by food price rises?
So shouldn't the UK grow all of its own food?
So where does the food I buy in the UK come from?
Can we produce more food in the UK?

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Why are food prices, in general, still rising in the UK?

But 2011 saw a fresh food price crisis, and the food price index, as calculated by the UN, hit a record peak in Feb 2011. The food price crisis of 2007-08 had barely passed, leaving many wondering why prices were so volatile.

Food price inflation looks set to stay. Image: iStockphoto

Food price inflation looks set to stay.
Image: iStockphoto

There are various reasons why food prices remain high – the co-called ‘perfect storm’ as Government Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington described it.

  • Increasing world population: the 7 billionth person was born in late 2011. World population is  predicted to reach around 9-10Bn by 2050
  • Changing diets: as people in more populous countries, particularly in Asia, become more affluent they tend to eat a more varied diet, including more meat, which takes more energy and feed to produce which drives up the costs of staple cereals
  • Commodities trading: there is now convincing evidence that the buying and selling of food commodities (or ‘futures’) on financial markets is contributing to, or even driving, food price volatility
  • Reduced arable land: the drive to produce more biofuels has led to conflicts over what agricultural land should be used for: food or fuel?
  • Transport and storage costs: the relatively high price of oil in recent years has driven up the price of storing and distributing food
  • Climate change: a warmer (or cooler, even) world leads to changes in what crops can be grown where. We can adapt, but fast enough to meet local or global needs?

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As a developed nation, why is the UK still affected by food price rises?

Britain may be an island, but it is a major hub of agricultural and commercial activity and so is buffeted by stormy events around the world, be they financial, weather related or natural catastrophes like drought and pest outbreaks.

The UK is not immune to food price fluctuations. Image: Hemera

The UK is not immune to food price fluctuations. Image: Hemera

On top of increases in world population, immigration to the UK remains high and the population is now more than 62M. This puts upwards pressure on both domestic and international food prices – it’s as simple as more mouths to feed.

The UK has fared well with recent food prices rises compared to developing nations. As a relatively wealthy and major trading nation with high per capita GDP, people can, in relative terms, afford a few percentage point increases in the cost of their food. In short, much poorer people in developing nations spend a much larger proportion of their income on food that do people in the UK, and so food price rises affect them more.

On the other hand, food prices rises affect people in the UK more than in Europe. And other rising living costs, particularly travel and fuel, mean that rising food costs are affecting the way the shopping habits of UK consumers.

There is more on the impact of prices in the UK Facts and Figures section.

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So shouldn’t the UK grow all of its own food?

In a word, no (even if it could). There is a powerful, almost unassailable, argument that total self-sufficiency would make the UK’s food supplies less, not more, secure.

100% self-sufficiency would literally be putting all the UK’s eggs in one basket. If the UK produced all of its own food, what would happen if poor weather or freak climactic events led to a reduced harvest? Or a new disease emerged? Or if there was a particularly bad year for an established pest? If all the UK’s food was home grown, losing a sizeable portion of any staple crop could have a significant inflationary effect on other food prices as demand for them increases.

Should the UK grow all its food? Image: iStockphoto

Should the UK grow all its food? Image: iStockphoto

Therefore, the present system may not be perfect, but producing over half of our own food and importing the rest protects the UK from catastrophic events by creating and maintaining trade links with other, mainly European nations. And since we also export food (particularly wheat, lamb, dairy products and breakfast cereals), this helps maintain the trade balance sheet and drives economic development.

Finally, trying to unilaterally pursue food security is not thought to be practicable, sustainable or financially rational because other key inputs, such as energy, animal feed and fertiliser, are sourced globally.

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So where does the food I buy in the UK come from?

Mostly, the food eaten in the UK is home grown. In 2010, from when the latest figures are available, the UK produced 73% of ‘indigenous-type foods’, and is about 60% self-sufficient when exports and local consumption are set against production.

Most of the food in the UK is produced locally. Image: iStockphoto

Most of the food in the UK is produced locally. Image: iStockphoto

And although supermarkets are stacked with foods from around the world and specialist local shops (Polish, Turkish in particular) are now a common sight, it’s worth bearing in mind that just 27 other countries accounted for 90% of the UK’s food supply in 2009. Of those 27 countries, after the UK (49.5%) the leading suppliers were the Netherlands (6.3%), Spain (5.3%), France (3.7%), Germany (2.9%), and Ireland (2.9%).

Meat and egg production is highly localised: just four countries accounted for 90% of meat and meat preparation supply (the UK supplied 82%), as well as 90% of dairy product and bird’s egg supply (UK supplied 81%).

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Can we produce more food in the UK?

No, certainly not in the short-term without harming the environment.

The UK is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Most of the agricultural land that can be used, is being used. In fact, most of the land space in the country is devoted to growing food: urban 11%; Woodland and national parks 20%; agriculture and countryside 69%.

Idyllic, but realistic? Image: iStockphoto

Idyllic, but realistic? Image: iStockphoto

Growing more food on the same area of UK land would require:

  • Clearing more forest,
  • Using more fertilisers when the long term, and most desirable trend is to use less
  • Converting National Park land, which in any case is not well suited to modern agriculture)
  • Utilising genetically modified (GM) crops, which at present are not grown for human consumption in any part of the EU. There is a position statement on GM (PDF) from UK Research Council BBSRC here.
  • Major investments in fisheries and aquaculture (farming seaweeds). 

There is more on UK food production and consumption in the UK Facts and Figures section.

A Q&A with a more international focus can be found in ‘The issue’.

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Sources

  1. Office for National Statistics (external link)
  2. Defra Food Statistics Pocketbook 2011
  3. The perfect storm