Written Evidence Submitted by the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL)(FS0070)


CIEL is one of the four UK Agri-Tech Centres established by the government as part of the Agri-Tech strategy in 2013. CIEL is funded by Innovate UK to promote and support R&D and innovation within the livestock sector. It has built an extensive network of academic and industrial partners to identify challenges to the livestock industry and relevant supply chains, as well as providing commercially viable solutions to improve sector competitiveness. Industry members include retailers, farm input supply businesses, food processors, technology providers, and trade organisations.

CIEL’s response to this inquiry aims to ensure that innovation, science and research are an important part of the food security debate. Similarly, CIEL is conscious that discussion around livestock can be dominated by rhetoric and opinion. CIEL has sought to provide independent evidence to inform decisions in a range of areas, and particularly in relation to Net Zero targets. This work has also explored the important role livestock play in our food system, producing nutrient dense food ideally suited to human diets, from feed material unsuitable for human consumption and produced on land unsuitable for growing human edible food. International research has shown that truly circular food systems need livestock to make the most efficient use of resources including waste/by-products from production of human food. Efficiency gains are to be had and reductions in emissions can be achieved with low impact on production. The reality is livestock have an important role in delivering food security for the UK through supply of highly nutritious food products as part of a balanced diet for UK consumers.


  1. 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?

The factors disrupting food supply chains are well documented. Some have their routes in our exit from the EU (access to labour), conflict in the Ukraine has been a key factor (energy and commodity prices), whilst longer term trade and agricultural policy reforms means that the UK agrifood sector has increasingly had to adapt to the volatility in agricultural commodity and input markets.

The current situation highlights the challenges we face globally in producing safe, affordable and high quality food in a sustainable way. In addition, the agrifood sector must meet those challenges at a time when climate change is increasingly likely to impact our primary producers. This has been emphasised again in 2022 with farm businesses in some parts of the country again experiencing drought conditions.

CIEL’s work with the GrassCheckGB initiative measures and forecasts grass growth. Primarily a tool for promoting more effective management of grass for the ruminants’ sector, it is an effective barometer of forage availability. This year’s data is available at https://www.grasscheckgb.co.uk/ and illustrates the variation in forage production compared to the three year average. If we are to adapt to an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, CIEL believes research and innovation are fundamental to supporting change in the industry. 

CIEL recently surveyed our members on a range of issues. Some 85% of respondents highlighted the Importance of investment in R&D for their business in the next 18 months. For the longer term (3-5 years), that number was even higher at 88%. Government has a key role to play in supporting and encouraging the required innovation. Indeed, the Government food strategy identifies the commitments made to the Farming Innovation Programme (delivered by Defra in partnership with UKRI). It is vital that these plans remain and are delivered effectively.

In speaking to our members, CIEL is conscious that tensions and trade-offs abound at the current time. The long-term commitments to aspects like Net Zero remain a focus for the agrifood sector, but commercial realities make committing to investment a challenge for farmers and food businesses alike. The solution lies in a focus on efficiency and productivity. From CIEL’s work around Net Zero, there are a range of actions that many farm businesses can take that improve the bottom line and also help improve carbon footprint. Highlighting the productivity potential and ensuring that innovation is applied on-farm must remain a priority.

Although some may be focusing on immediate challenges, it should be noted that the current situation has also proved a catalyst for new ideas. High fertiliser prices are accelerating the interest in how livestock manures can be used more effectively on-farm. Precision application is an obvious start point, but there is also a focus on new technologies in this area (e.g. enzyme-application, electrolysis, drying & pelleting) that are all intended to improve the nutrient-use efficiency. However, these are long term research areas that require ongoing investment to ensure that technologies reach the marketplace.


  1. What is the outlook for UK food price inflation in the short and medium term? What policy interventions should the Government consider to manage these pressures?

UK agriculture has seen some rapid increases in key input costs particularly in feed, fuel and fertiliser. Whilst few UK agricultural markets work on a ‘cost-plus’ basis, this inflation in inputs is occurring globally, underpinning increases in commodity prices. Factoring in the increases in the labour, energy and distribution costs incurred by the agrifood supply chain, this inevitably impacts on food price rises. In addition, the volume of agrifood products imported into the UK, food prices will also be impacted by exchange rates and the relative strength of the pound and is currently adding to inflationary pressure. Historically, there is a time lag of circa 3 – 6 months between the increases in farmgate prices impacting consumer prices, although it does vary by product.

Food price rises tend to be emotive - we all buy food on a frequent basis. However, what is often lacking is context. Food price inflation (as measured by CPI) tends to lag behind overall inflation. Whilst rapid price rises make the headlines, the relative stagnation of food prices does not. Food inflation between 2015 and December 2020 was measured at just 2.3% 

What is apparent is the current lack of forecasting and horizon scanning. The UK agrifood information environment is broadly geared up to provide data and report on what has happened, rather than forecasting what will happen. For example, by the time there are official estimates of the planted area of cereals and the likely production, that cereal crop has already been harvested and a proportion of next season’s crop will have been planted. This in contrast to the US Department of Agriculture, where projections and forecasts are common place, even incorporating medium term food inflation estimates.

Looking ahead, agritech can play a greater role in terms of agrifood business intelligence. Satellite technology can capture planted area and crop growth. CIEL’s GrassCheckGB project is using grass Tech businesses in the livestock sector who already have the ability to predict growth rates of beef animals based on previous performance, providing insight to the meat processing sector of the number of animals coming forward and their likely weight. Quite simply, better data means better decisions. That applies equally to everyone who makes decisions, whether they are farmers, processors, or policy-makers.


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

Others will be better placed than CIEL to provide insight to this question. Similarly, commercially available sales and consumption data (e.g. Kantar Worldpanel) would provide detail of changing consumption trends and could be used as a proxy for health and nutrition impacts.

For many consumers, food safety is regarded as a given. However, at times of high prices, there tends to be a greater risk of food fraud with the potential to undermine integrity in the food supply chain. It is essential that food safety is not compromised at a time of price pressure and the lack of inspections on UK food imports is a challenge. Food safety, quality and integrity are focus areas for CIEL. Indeed, a number of CIEL members are involved in research and projects that in this area e.g. microbiological safety in abattoirs; product quality testing at the farm level. As a high quality producer of high quality foods, it is essential that food safety is not compromised.

Livestock have a critically important role in producing highly nutritious foods. They should not be compared with alternative products on a weight for weight basis. There is huge value delivered by these in a balanced diet, particularly for the young and the old. The high cost of livestock foods compared to some apparently comparable alternatives must be considered relative to the real nutrient index of these foods and the other costs associated with production of more highly processed foods. Livestock products are natural and barely processed compared to many alternatives promoted to consumers.


  1. How will the proposals in the Government’s food strategy policy paper affect:
    1. the resilience of food supply chains?;
    2. the agri-food and seafood sectors?;
    3. access to healthy, nutritious food?

The food strategy policy paper proposals contain several aspects that are welcomed by CIEL. For example, the inclusion of the fisheries sector is important, given the potential growth of the aquaculture sector in the years ahead (Scottish finfish production from aquaculture will overtake UK sheepmeat production later this decade). Ongoing support for productivity gains and on-farm schemes will be critical to helping encourage changes in performance. The call for evidence on feed additives and methane inhibitors is an area where CIEL will respond, given the ongoing research amongst our members and researchers. And perhaps most importantly from the perspective of the CIEL network are the spending commitments relating to innovation and research that will be vital to ensuring a long-term pipeline of evidence, science and technology is available to the UK agrifood sector.

There are some areas, however, that would benefit from further clarity and consideration. Plans around establishing a joint vision and identifying priority areas should ensure an effort to build on current understanding. The Government’s Industrial Strategy was the catalyst for a focus on agritech. With this originally published in 2013, a review and refresh of that vision is sensible, particularly given the shifting challenges of the agrifood sector. This, however, needs to link with the existing agritech framework, ensuring it prioritises and promotes innovation rather than add complexity to what can be a difficult landscape for agrifood businesses to navigate.

The What Works Centre is a valuable concept that has worked effectively in other sectors. How that applies to tens of thousands of farming businesses, in different sectors, with different motivations and in different parts of the country will need to be worked through. That means exploring the social science and the barriers to change in our industry, recognising that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach won’t drive widespread change. It needs to be remembered that a wealth of evidence and research is already available, so care must be taken to ensure that there isn’t duplication. Given CIEL’s role (and that of the other Agri-tech Centres), there is a strong degree of insight and understanding of the research pipeline in agriculture. As such, CIEL has a valuable role to play in relation to the livestock-related aspects of ‘What Works’ and would welcome more information on future plans.

The sentiments around trade are welcome. CIEL’s membership includes multi-national food businesses that source food from around the world. Similarly, we help support our members in promotion and exploring the potential of their UK-derived agritech and know-how in diverse international markets. Indeed, this has benefited from support of British embassies and missions, with expansion of this networking further supporting growth opportunities. However, work undertaken around net zero by CIEL has flagged the relatively low carbon footprint of UK livestock production systems compared with the global average and the value that nutrient dense livestock food products deliver to our diets.

No doubt the plans to publish a statement on the independent animal health and production regime will be helpful in providing more information, but there is arguably a need to ensure that environmental aspects are incorporated into this exercise. ‘Offshoring’ is a risk that is regularly highlighted in our discussions with industry in relation to environmental aspects. Comparative costs might mean it’s cheaper to import a product from elsewhere in the world, but if imports come at a higher environmental cost/with a higher carbon footprint, we simply add to the environmental challenge.


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

Self-sufficiency is a key discussion point for many in the farming industry. Inevitably, it is used as a proxy for our ability to feed ourselves and the decline in self-sufficiency is presented in negative terms. What isn’t always reflected is the context of this change, especially in relation to relevant policy measures. In particular, the decoupling of support payments from production since the 1990s has removed a policy incentive that encouraged farmers to produce, whatever the market signals. Similarly, the reduction of tariffs and barriers to trade have facilitated the global trade in agricultural products.

In reality, self-sufficiency (or rather the supply to use ratio, as measured by Defra) is a barometer of the relative competitiveness of our primary producers. All things being equal, a falling figure points to a sector losing ground whilst an increasing figure indicates a sector being increasingly competitive. CIEL believes that monitoring this as part of an agrifood information system has value, particularly if it prompts consideration of policy measures and interventions to support and enhance the competitiveness of the agrifood sector.

Monitoring of data relating to food security could go further and allow policy-makers to be more nuanced. It could monitor supply-to-use ratios across the different sectors, recognising the pressures and reasons behind self-sufficiency vary across sectors (compare dairy to fruit, for instance). It could focus on sectors where we can compete internationally (e.g. dairy), exploring the opportunity to grow exports of not just British produce, but also the know-how and the technology. It could look ahead, exploring how climate change is likely to impact specific sectors and the UK’s production potential. Or it could look at the risks presented by disease and disruption to specific sectors or supply chains.


  1. 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?

It is likely that the future land use framework will encounter some polarised views and very different expectations when it comes to food production and the environment. The reality is that adapting our use of land will be more complex than an either/or choice. It also needs the support and engagement from a wide range of stakeholders.

A land use framework should consider that ruminant livestock are critically important in UK agriculture because they can graze grassland unsuitable for growing crops suitable for human food. Similarly, they can utilize “waste” or by-products of human food production, upgrading them to a highly nutritious food. And increasingly, there is recognition of livestock in the nutrient cycle where manures can be used as substitutes for artificial fertilisers and add structure to soils, making them more resilient to drought and flooding.

CIEL’s work on net zero has also identified that there are a range of options that farms in different livestock sectors can take to reduce their emissions. Clearly the environmental aspect is broader thanemissions, but this work did focus on maintaining livestock production at existing volumes rather than by reducing livestock numbers and output. For example, modelling a range of mitigations on a spring calving dairy herd resulted in a 31.5% reduction in the farm’s associated carbon footprint, without impacting output. There is scope to improve the efficiency/productivity of farming businesses alongside improvements in their environmental impact. CEIL hopes that the ability for productive agriculture to deliver towards net zero ambitions would similarly be recognised in the framework when it is published.


September 2022