Written evidence submitted by the Soil Association (FS0013)



What are the key factors affecting the resilience of food supply chains and causing disruption and rising food prices – including input costs, labour shortages and global events? What are the consequences for UK businesses and consumers?

  1. The resilience of the UK’s food supply chains is increasingly under threat from climate breakdown and nature decline both domestically and overseas, and the Government’s Food Security report (2021) highlighted these two factors as the single largest threats to food security. Although not yet fully quantified in economic terms, the 2022 summer heatwave and continuing drought conditions are a taste of what will become increasingly commonplace in the UK. These extreme weather events are expected to reduce the yields of key domestically produced crops and there is anticipation that further reductions in production will continue into the year ahead.[1]


  1. But at the same time, there is no guarantee that we will be able to rely upon imports of agricultural goods from overseas. A recent study found that more than 44% of the EU’s agricultural imports will become vulnerable to drought in the future.[2] Alarmingly, the Food Research Collaboration has found that UK ‘food defence’ is weak, meaning we ‘could not feed our people adequately, let alone well, if there was a severe supply or trade crisis’.[3] The world is increasingly at risk of multiple breadbasket failures from climate breakdown and conflict[4], and recent geopolitical events have demonstrated how rapidly crises can escalate.


  1. Whilst the impacts of climate breakdown will continue to grow both here and overseas, our domestic agricultural system remains insufficiently resilient to even the current impacts we’re seeing. Decades of intensification, high input use and a proliferation of uniform cropping systems has left on farm agrobiodiversity depleted and unable to cope with unfavourable growing conditions. In particular, the degradation of the UK’s soils directly threatens our ability to produce food, whilst healthy soils are significantly more drought and flood resistant. The evidence is clear that more nature-friendly systems that rebuild soil organic matter enable increased resilience in the face of extreme weather; in the US, it has been found that regenerative organic systems produce yields up to 40% than conventional systems in times of drought.[5] 


  1. At the same time, our wholesale reliance upon agrichemicals as inputs to our food system leave us beholden to economic, geopolitical and environmental shocks globally. This has been demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has partially contributed to rising gas and fertiliser prices. The impact on farm businesses has been significant and if high prices persist for the next 12 months farmers could face additional bills of £760m.[6] A shift towards agroecological farming (with an integration of largely ruminant livestock onto farms) with lower use of synthetic inputs leave farmers less exposed to global price changes and supply chain troubles. Recent work we’ve undertaken has demonstrated that agroecological farming makes good business sense in its own right, and rising input costs will only strengthen this case.[7]


  1. The impacts are already making themselves clear. Food price inflation is at its highest rate for 14 years. The reasons for this are numerous (and include Brexit, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food commodity price speculation, input cost increases), but it is more important than ever that we enhance the resilience of our domestic food production, whilst committing to progressive trading relations with partners who uphold our food and environmental standards.

How are the rising cost of living and increasing food prices affecting access to healthy and nutritious food?

  1. Analysis by the Food Foundation shows that food price inflation rose for the 13th consecutive month to 13.1% in the 12 months to August 2022, from 12.7% in July[8]. The increase in food and non-alcoholic beverages has predominantly risen due to the rise in the cost of oils & fats and milk cheese and eggs.


  1. Many families are struggling, with an estimated one in five people in the UK living in poverty. 55% of families with children are worried their children’s health and wellbeing will be affected because they can’t afford their energy and food bills.


  1. The increase in food prices is also affecting public sector caterers. A Food for Life survey to caterers found that there are real concerns that if price increases continue they will be forced to make changes to their current practices and menus such as using more processed food instead of preparing food fresh, which will affect nutritional quality.


  1. Global food prices have declined somewhat in recent months as exports from Ukraine and Russia have increased since the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2022, but the coming year will likely see ongoing price volatility and families will continue to struggle without adequate government support.

How will the proposals in the Government’s food strategy policy paper affect:

-          access to healthy, nutritious food?


  1. It’s uncertain to what degree the Government’s food strategy policy paper will affect access to healthy and nutritious food. In relation to fruit and veg, the Government should take urgent action to support both growers and consumers. Growers need reassurance that labour will be available next year, and support with energy costs. Consumers need a fair deal on the supermarket shelf. Action from the retailers, such as loosening the spec required for fresh fruit and veg, could help both growers and consumers alike.

Is the current level and target of food self-sufficiency in England still appropriate?

  1. The level of food self-sufficiency (currently around 54%) is arbitrary in itself and not the only determinant of whether the UK achieves the more important goal of high food resilience. Food resilience is related to our ability to maintain sufficient levels of food supply and sufficiency even in the face of economic, environmental or geopolitical shocks. This means having a resilient domestic agricultural sector underpinned by agroecology with a diverse mix of supply chains (including local), as well as a progressive approach to trade that secures sustainable and ethical food sources from overseas.


  1. Underpinning high food resilience is a food system in which we grow a variety of crops using a wide variety of nature-friendly practices. Diversity is vital at the farm scale as well as the landscape scale- and evidence shows that this can increase the stability of the national harvest.[9] Not only this but the resilience of agricultural returns in the UK has been found to be significantly related to the diversity of agricultural land use.[10]


  1. There is a strong case that specific sectors of agriculture should either be supported to scale up or scale down, depending on their social and environmental impacts. In particular there is an urgent need to shift away from intensive livestock production dependent on imported animal feed towards less but high-quality meat produced as part of mixed agroecological systems. The immediate focus here should be on chicken, which makes up almost 50% of the meat in British diets (a proportion that is rising year-on-year driven by low costs often dependent on environmental degradation at home and abroad). We must also boost agroecological horticulture production so that we produce and eat much more of our fruit and vegetables in this country.

How could the Government’s proposed land use strategy for England improve food security? What balance should be stuck between land use for food production and other goals – such as environmental benefit?

  1. The Soil Association is supportive of the Government’s proposal to undertake a land use strategy for England, but is clear that it must be undertaken thoroughly and go beyond just carbon, biodiversity and food production to tackle all land uses.


  1. There is a tension around land use in England in relation to meeting our environmental objectives whilst also producing adequate quantities of healthy and nutritious food. However, the National Food Strategy was absolutely clear that this tension can be reconciled. This is possible because much of our least productive farmland (at least as defined in relation to calories, an admittedly narrow framing) is well suited to nature restoration and carbon removal. Most of this land is in the uplands (where government subsidy makes up on average 91% of farm income). At a very high level, in England, 20% of our least productive farmland produces just 3% of calories, while 30% of farmland produces 60%. In the uplands, there is considerable opportunity for much more broadleaf woodland as well as agroecological practices like agroforestry, although current economic frameworks do not support farmers to make any kind of transition.


  1. The Strategy must tackle how we become smarter with how we use our land. Of particular importance in the near term is to ensure that we grow crops used directly for human consumption. In particular, there is an urgent need to focus on the impact of biofuel production and land used to grow feed crops for industrially produced livestock; as well as ensure that land use is optimised and incentivised for multiple outputs (multifunctionality). For example, in 2021, an estimated 121,000ha were used to grow biofuel crops. This land could instead be used to grow food to feed 3.5 million people per year.[11]

[1] UK farmers count cost as heatwave kills fruit and vegetable crops | Farming | The Guardian

[2] Cross-border climate vulnerabilities of the European Union to drought | Nature Communications

[3] Testing Times for UK Food Policy: Nine principles and Tests - Food Research Collaboration

[4] World risks 'multi-breadbasket failure' from climate change and conflict, scientists warn | BusinessGreen News

[5] Farming Systems Trial - Rodale Institute

[6] https://ca1-eci.edcdn.com/Food-farming-fertiliser-March-2022-ECIU.pdf?v=1648124498

[7] Evidence Hub: Agroecological Farming & Land Use (soilassociation.org)

[8] https://foodfoundation.org.uk/news/food-prices-tracking-august-update

[9] National food production stabilized by crop diversity | Nature

[10] Landscape diversity and the resilience of agricultural returns: a portfolio analysis of land-use patterns and economic returns from lowland agriculture | Agriculture & Food Security | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

[11] https://green-alliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Food-security-and-UK-crop-based-biofuel-use.pdf