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UK threat

Britain...imports 40% of the total food consumed and the proportion is rising

The UK has a highly successful agricultural industry, but many domestic and international factors affect food production and prices for consumers in the UK. This became evident during the world food price spike of 2008.

The food and drink supply chain is the UK’s single largest manufacturing sector and accounts for 7% of GDP, employs 3.7M people and is worth £80Bn per year (ref 1). 

But although the UK has a thriving farming sector – it exported £12Bn of food and drink in 2007 (ref 2) – Britain is not self-sufficient in food production; it imports 40% of the total food consumed and the proportion is rising (ref 1). Therefore, as a food-trading nation, Britain relies on both imports and thriving export markets to feed itself and drive economic growth.

Food chains are sensitive markets.
Image: Tijmen Stam

Behind the always full-looking supermarket shelves lies a supply chain that is sensitive to economic and environmental events. Too much or too little rain can reduce harvests. Emerging exotic diseases such as bluetongue and African swine fever threaten to devastate livestock industries.

The UK is also exposed to volatile global markets for products such as animal feed that have strong impacts on supermarket prices. In the interconnected world, it's consumers that have to pay more downstream, as they did in 2008.

The 2008 food price spike

Early 2008 saw the culmination of astonishing food price rises. The price spike brought an end to the long-term decline in relative price of food in the UK, and few expect it to return to past lows.

On the global markets, the 12 months to March 2008 saw the wheat price rise 130%, soya by 87% and rice jump 74% (ref 3).

UK shopping costs have risen sharply

These price rises on the global commodities markets had a rapid and significant impact for UK consumers. In a BBC survey of household UK shopping, general items such as tinned foods registered a 15% price increase and 7 items in the survey jumped by more than 40%. A pack of 4 croissants was 47.4% more expensive and a 125g packet of ham went up by 45.4%. Other surveys showed that fruit and vegetables saw some of the biggest price rises – up nearly a third at the major supermarkets from 2007-08 (ref 3).

Food price rises affect less wealthy families hardest. The poorest 10% of UK households spent 15% of their expenditure on food in 2005-06 (after which food prices increased significantly), a figure that was just 7% for the richest 10%. This is because low income consumers spend proportionately more on milk, eggs and bread – staples that are hard hit by food price rises (ref 1, ref 4).

From bad to worse

Pressures on the UK’s food security are here to stay. Increasing global population and changing consumption patterns are increasing demand for foodstuffs and contributing to upwards price trends. However, the threat to UK food security could be more serious should increased global demand combine with other potential problems.

One emerging concern is the bluetongue virus. A disease that mostly affects sheep, it is transmitted by the Culicoides biting midge. As the weather has warmed in recent years, the geographical range of the midge has spread north, arriving in the Netherlands in 2006 and with the first confirmed outbreak in the UK in 2007. Since then, the disease has gone on to strike Norway in 2009.

  Scientists fight bluetongue by hunting midges

Video transcript - Video and audio help

Dr Simon Carpenter of the Institute for Animal Health says the midges are probably the only way the virus is transmitted, but one strain of the virus –serotype A – seems also to be transmitted trans-placentally from sheep to lamb.

This could mean that should the virus arrive in the UK again in the future it could establish itself in British flocks. “During the winter the midges overwinter as larvae and can’t transmit the virus to their offspring,” says Carpenter. “This could be why it seems to have managed to overwinter under conditions that would usually have knocked it out of northern populations.”

Fortunately, a vaccination programme prevented any outbreaks of the disease in 2008, saving an estimated £460M and 10,000 jobs in the UK (ref 5). But bluetongue will almost certainly return and gain a foothold in the UK, which will be very bad for consumers and the UK economy. Lamb exports will be reduced, and animals would be culled which would increase lamb prices and impact on other meat prices. 

Multiple threats

If bluetongue struck along with another disease, one that struck wheat for example, the combined effects – bad but manageable individually – could be disastrous. A record wheat crop of 17.2M tonnes was harvested in the UK in 2008 (ref 6,ref 7); as a cereal-exporting country it would cost the economy billions if a new wheat-attacking plant pathogen were to arrive.

Unfortunately, such a species has emerged. The Ug99 strain of the 'stem’ or ‘wheat rust' fungus was first found in Uganda in 1999 (from where the Ug denomination originates) and has since spread to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and across the Red Sea to Yemen and Iran (ref 8).

Resistant to the major three anti-rust genes used to protect most of the world's wheat, experts predict disaster if it reaches Pakistan and India, or any major wheat-producing nation.

Wheat rust can infect a healthy crop in hours and turn it into a useless mulch in days. Scientists are now engaged in a race against time to develop a new strain of wheat resistant to Ug99.

Resistant wheat rust fungus could devastate harvests. Image: FAO

Another problem we share with other food-producing nations is a worrying decline in the populations of insect pollinators, such as bees, moths and butterflies. In the UK, bee populations have fallen by 10-15% over the last 2 years. Declines have also been seen in Europe and North America (ref 9).

It's not clear what has caused such a sharp decline. With so many different species affected, the answer is likely to be multi-faceted, and no single cause behind the worrying drop in numbers.

Whatever the cause, we need to find out: a third of crops are pollinated by insects, and further declines could lead to higher food costs and potential shortages.

Local climate change is also an issue in the UK, where warmer wetter winters are forecast alongside drier summers. The range and types of UK pests, diseases and weeds is likely to significantly change. For instance, the severity of phoma stem canker epidemics is predicted to increase, but the incidence of light leaf spot will decrease (ref 10).

There could also be more problems with pesticide resistance. Higher temperatures could lead to an increased number of generations per year, which allows time for resistance build up, and warmer winters could improve survival in resistant pest populations.

Interconnected world

Should crop yields be significantly affected by the decline in insect pollinators, or even a small proportion of the British sheep population succumb to bluetongue, exports would be curtailed, jobs would be lost, and food wasted. Furthermore, culling sheep or cattle would have a knock-on effect on other meat prices, sending them spiralling. 

It’s the same negative double-whammy for other major exporting countries: a poor wheat harvest reduces income and can send other cereal prices spiralling, especially since many cereals are used for animal feed and the global appetite for meat is increasing in the most populous nations.

Therefore, the UK’s food security issues affect the world, just as the world’s issues affect the UK. If the UK is to avoid the price rises of 2008, where the cost of standard healthy eating items like fruit and vegetables increased by more than 30% in major supermarkets, a major and sustained effort will be required to research the problems and bring solutions to farms and then shops across the country.


Further materials are available in resources.

  1. Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century
  2. DEFRA - The Future of our Farming
  3. BBC Special Report: the cost of food
  4. ONS Family Spending 2006
  5. The economic and social impact of the Institute for Animal Health's work on Bluetongue disease (BTV-8)
  6. Agriculture in UK statistics
  7. FAO: Food security statistics by country
  8. Cornell University: Rust Resistance in Wheat
  9. BBSRC Business summer 2009 - The plight of the humble bee
  10. Jon West's presentation at workshop: Food security and sustainability - can we avert a food crisis?