Written Evidence submitted by Birmingham Food Council (FS0072)


Who we are

The Birmingham Food Council CIC is an independent body. Its Board of Directors has an impressive collective expertise and experience. Our Panel of Experts come from a range of agri-food research disciplines and relevant professional fields. We also work with people from our wide network of specialist informants.

A unique perspective

Our scenarios work gives us a unique perspective on UK food security, particularly in relation to urban communities. Over the last five years, we have taken over 80 professionals, including many with operational roles in the food sector, through various scenario exercises to enable the UK to better respond to future food security challenges.

1              Key factors affecting the resilience of food supply chains and their consequences

1.1              A useful framework 

In considering the key factors affecting the resilience of UK food supply chains, it’s useful to have an overview of what the components of the food system do. A key factor is one that affects either a significant part of the system, and/or affects the operations of the whole system. Figure 1 below maps the operational functions needed to get sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food to the UK Grouppopulation.

1.1.1              The multiplicity of organisations involved

Figure 1 illuminates (a) the multiplicity of operations from the farm gate to consumer, any one of which can be disrupted, (b) their diverse range, (c) their dependencies on the world outside the sector, (d) the dynamic interdependencies among them all, thus (e) how a butterfly wingevent, such as a sudden CO2 shortage, can disrupt supplies and/or have cascading impact or show up (f) particular vulnerabilities; e.g. gaps in secondary production capacity and capability, nutrient-dense effluent from farms and sewage works damaging water supplies, reduction in fertile top soils and (g) the role of Government to set the parameters of engagement between the operations of all the playersin the system, and consumers.

1.2              Threats to UK food security and supply resilience

There are ever-increasing threats to UK food security and supply resilience. This challenging situation is due to a frightening combination of threats to the system:

1.2.1              The major threats

The drivers of the threats to food supplies include climate change and associated extreme weather events, population pressures, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, changing geographies, crop pathogens and their anti-microbial resistance, pestilence in livestock and people, water scarcity and soil, water and air pollution.

1.2.2              Geopolitics

All of the above adds to increasingly volatile geopolitics, which itself affects all food trade. We can expect wars over basic agri-resources (land, fertile soils, fresh water, unpolluted seas) and mass migrations. Unless there is international collaborative effort, famine looks set to return, and hunger become widespread.

1.2.3              Population responses

Without a radical change in government policies, here and across the world, there will be even greater suffering of many millions, if not billions of people, along with ever-increasing risks of civil unrest and rabble-rousing demagoguery.

1.2.4              The economic impact: Ever increasing prices for safe, nutritious food

The aggregating impact of these global drivers on the food supply system translates into the already intense competition for safe, nutritious food increasing even more. This will mean ever higher global prices for safe, nutritious food.

2              The outlook for UK price inflation in the short and medium term? What policy interventions should the Government consider to manage these pressures?

2.1              The outlook for UK price inflation in the short and medium term

There will be a relentless rise in food prices, sometimes sharp, in the short and medium term.

2.2              The policy options the Government should consider to manage these pressures

2.2.1              Regarding household income

A mix of the following options will help households to manage these pressures
(a) increasing basic household income, (b) child benefit for all, given to the carer, with a larger allowance for the under-5s, (c) investing in the utilisation of surplus retail and wholesale stocks to provision a new catering services supply chain which could then (d) contribute to economies of scale in stigma-free provision of mass catering services to include (e) free nursery and school meals for all children and (f) cheap, healthy meals in community venues and (g) fiscal incentives for the provision of subsidised safe, nutritious meals for all employees.

2.2.2              The elimination of non-tariff barrier costs between the UK and EU

In addition, food prices have risen because of this Brexit. Import and export businesses can no longer operate on a level playing field without the costs of (a) non-tariff barriers with the largest free trade area in the world resulting in (b) spoilt produce owing to customs delays, and (c) in operating two sets of standards. Many have chosen to go out of business, more look set to follow with further detrimental effects on UK food security.

2.2.3              The particular circumstances of Northern Ireland

Owing to this Brexit, shoppers in Northern Ireland have become used to food shortages and scarcities of produce on wholesale and retail shelves. This could also be addressed. through the elimination of non-tariff barriers with the EU27.

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

3.1              Commercial drivers

Nutrient-dense foods are expensive to produce, assure and distribute. Without Government intervention, commercial drivers will lead to the consumption of less nutritious food. Foods will also be less safe, as opportunities for unscrupulous practices and organised crime will proliferate.

3.2              Access to healthy, nutritious food

Already across the UK, a significant number of households cannot afford sufficient healthy food. Reports of hunger are commonplace. Millions are already having to learn how to survive through what is, in essence, a nutrient famine for them.[1]

3.3              Access to safe, assured food

Unsafe food leads to food poisoning, some become seriously ill, some die every year. Unassured food that isn’t what it says on the label can be dangerous to human health and encourages organised crime, including modern day slavery, to escalate.

3.3.1              Food standards

The UK has been a leader in having high regulatory standards; now the EU27 look set to lead us. If British farmers have to compete with low standard imports, they will go out of business.

3.3.2              High regulatory standards, poor enforcement

Inspection, sampling and testing are no longer routine in England,[2] as local authorities do not have the resources to meet their statutory duties. This is arguably the worst of all worlds. Consumers trust the system, yet food standards are poorly enforced. Large retailers can afford to operate to high assured standards, but smaller ones can only work on trust. Food standards across catering services/hospitality sector is opaque.

3.3.3              Relaxation of regulation during the Covid pandemic

The Government relaxed significant food regulations with the first lockdown. This was done without a review period. We can’t comment on whether they have been reimposed or not; we simply don’t know. We hope they have, we fear they have not.

3.3.4              Food fraud and food crime

Not all of the recommendations under the Elliott Review have been implemented.

3.3.5              Food poisoning

The collection of data on food poisoning incidents, hospitalisations and deaths, once routinely published on-line, appears not to happen any more.[3] We don’t know what’s happening. All we do know is that, without attention to enforcing regulations, a food poisoning outbreak becomes significantly more likely.

4              The Government’s food strategy policy paper

We cannot find anything substantive and implementable in the White Paper that will beneficially affect UK food security, the resilience of food supply chains, any particular sector within the food system or access to healthy nutritious food. We can comment, however, on the resilience of food supply chains (4.1 and 4.2) and access to healthy, nutritious food (4.3):

4.1              The resilience of supply chains

4.1.1  Building robustness into the food supply system operations is initially costly

Commercial enterprises favour operational ‘just-in-time’ efficiency over holding stocks. They will only build robustness into their plans if short-term shortages are deemed highly probable, risking delayed market sales being higher than storage costs. Only Government has the authority and powers to lever the changes necessary to make the food supply system more robust and thereby resilient in response to potential shortages of safe, nutritious food, and to mitigate their impact when they do occur. (See also 4.2.5.)

4.1.2   The Government’s responsibilities

This statement in 2021 Food Security Report to Parliament indicates the Government is seeking to abnegate their responsibilities under the 1996 Rome Declaration on Food Security,[4] to which they are a signatory:

The capability, levers, and expertise to respond to disruption lie with the agri-food industry, which is experienced in dealing with scenarios that can affect food supply disruption.

Governments role is to support and enable an industry-led response. This includes extensive and ongoing engagement to support industry in preparedness for, and response to, potential food supply chain disruptions.[5]

4.1.3              The role of the commercial sector

The commercial food sector has neither the capacity nor capability, let alone the authority to make the food supply system more resilient or to ensure food security for the population. They do, however, have the flexibility and the commercial interest to respond to whatever strictures the Government puts upon it, as demonstrated in their rapid reconfiguration of the supply system with the first lockdown, when the Government closure of the hospitality sector led, overnight, to half the nation’s food supplies literally being locked up.

4.2              A resilient food supply system has to respond routinely to crises

In an interview with Channel 4 News in the aftermath of Storm Eunice, Baroness Brown stated What we have dealt with as a crisis needs to be routine.[6] This is the fundamental requisite for a fully functioning resilient food supply system fit to withstand the grave threats to it.

4.2.1  Crisis management is not a strategic option

Without preparedness planning, only tactical options are open to crisis managers when acute shortages and scarcities of any commodity occur. These options are to (a) reduce or change demand (e.g. by rationing), (b) scale up production (impossible with most, but not all foods) or (c) use reserve stocks. It has to be remembered, too, that crisis management in response to food supply shocks is greatly exacerbated  by most fresh produce being highly perishable.[7]

4.2.2   Gaps in UK capacity and capability

The first Covid lockdown taught us that a resilient food system depends on more capacity and capability between the farm gate and wholesale or retail shelf than we have; e.g. in preservation, other processing, storage and distribution logistics.[8]

4.2.3              Robustness: Contingency stocks

A more resilient food supply system requires built-in robustness; i.e. spare capacity. Today’s farmers rightly cavil at costly, wasteful primary production surpluses. Our scenarios work, however, suggests an expansion in secondary production capacity, capability and associated technologies would allow an efficient distributed, rotating contingency stocks system to be developed nationally.

GroupFigure 2 indicates where some of the Government policy options lie:

4.2.4              A more robust, resilient food supply chain will beneficially change the food system

Contingency stocks are about having sufficient supplies of sustainable, safe, nutritious food for a population at all times. In putting a value on such foods, there would be beneficial impact throughout the food system, as well as greatly improving the health and wellbeing of the population; see also 4.2.5, 4.3.2 and 4.3.3 below.

4.2.5              Mid and long-term returns on investment (ROI)

It costs to take food stocks out of the market. Any such system therefore requires Government investment.[9] Over time, there will be ROI: (a) on social capital; e.g. lower costs for diet-related morbidities, community resilience and emergency responses and (b) through higher GDP due to better-nourished children,[10] and on the technologies and other assets of an effective contingency system.

4.2.6              Effective emergency planning depends on built-in resilience in the supply system

The Civil Contingencies Act, currently under review, is about emergency planning. It lists food security, but has nothing on how the population will access food. Rehearsal exercises for sudden supply disruptions to communities, unlike those for a pandemic, have never been planned or taken place. When the UK did have food supply emergency, as happened with the first Covid lockdown, local resilience planning required under the Act proved irrelevant. Indeed, were any Local Resilience Forums convened and, if so, to what effect?[11]

4.3              Access to healthy, nutritious food

4.3.1   Affordability: The downside of the commercial food supply system

As with most national food systems, ours is a commercial one. We can be thankful it exists; it delivers safe, nutritious, delicious food to millions every day But only those who can afford to pay have access to the food they need; see section 3 above.

4.3.2   Action against unhealthy products

Current Government policy is (a) to exhort behaviour change for which there is no evidence for its efficacy, and (b) put in place a Sugar Tax on beverages. Unlike in the US with their Soda Tax, the UK tax led companies to reformulate products using artificial sweeteners many if not all of which have a different but deleterious impact on human health, and some added caffeine, another an addictive substance. There has been marginal change in overall sugar consumption since; if anything, it has increased.[12]

4.3.3              Action against companies who make unhealthy products

Diet-related morbidities will remain a costly and intractable public health challenge without effective interventions against the companies that make and promote products that damage human health and, in their use of increasingly scarce agri-food resources, wreak damage on planetary health too. Through a historical quirk in the UK taxation system, VAT is a precise means to identify the corporations involved. The Government could curb their power to degrade the supply system, as achieved by previous governments in curbing the activities of tobacco companies.[13]

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

5.1              Measuring self-sufficiency

5.1.1  Consumption needs

Much of Britain’s climate and terrain is good for growing cereal crops and protein.[14] It is far less suited to growing the 10-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables needed for a healthy diet.[15] Current levels and targets for self-sufficiency would be better measured in terms of the primary and secondary production needed to meet the dietary needs of the population.

5.1.2              Secondary production, other processing, packaging and distribution logistics

Measuring self-sufficiency is further compounded by the nature of global trade. Many individual products on our shelves are multi-sourced from across the world.

5.2              This Brexit

Whatever levels of self-sufficiency are deemed appropriate depend heavily on our trading relationships, in particular with the EU27; see sections 5.1.1, 2.2.2 and 2.2.3 above.

6              Your questions about the Government’s proposed land use strategy

Others are better placed than we are to respond to these questions.




[1]              The Food Foundation carry our regular surveys of food insecurity in the UK: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/initiatives/food-insecurity-tracking

[2]              See: the Local Authority Enforcement Monitoring System (LAEMS) data sets: https://data.food.gov.uk/catalog/datasets/069c7353-4fdd-4b4f-9c13-ec525753fb2c

[3]              Although the webpage was updated in June 2020,  the only official documentation there appears to be from 2018, and doesn’t give hospitalisation or mortality statistics: https://www.food.gov.uk/news-alerts/news/fsa-research-suggests-new-higher-estimates-for-the-role-of-food-in-uk-illness. We’d be glad to be corrected on this matter!

[4] https://www.fao.org/3/w3613e/w3613e00.htm

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/united-kingdom-food-security-report-2021, page 154

[6]              https://www.channel4.com/news/storm-eunice-climate-science-suggests-more-frequent-extreme-weather-in-uk-climate-committee-chair-says

[7]               The common view of reserve stocksis about grain silos, and sackfuls of flour or dried milk being delivered to panic-stricken communities.

[8]               For example, UK farmers poured milk destined for the hospitality sector, down the drain. In other countries, milk could be locally preserved through spray-drying facilities. With less mass and bulk, it was more easily stored and could be sold on later.

[9]               Funded perhaps by a Food Resilience Levy, with higher rates for corporations making foodand beverage products carrying standard-rate VAT; see 4.3.3 and footnote 13.

[10]              Cognitive stunting results from early malnourishment, affecting generational educational attainment thus economic productivity; see World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 8536, 2018

[11]              Any new legislation should include responses to and recovery from sudden disruptions and shocks to the food system.

[12] https://www.statista.com/statistics/285151/sugar-and-confectionery-uk-consumer-price-index-cpi/

[13]              See Journal of Public Health VAT: A precise means to identify drug food companies co-authored by the former Director of Public Health and Past President of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor John Middleton, former GP and Emeritus Professor of Primary Care at Birmingham Medical School, Professor Jim Parle and former Senior Fellow and Subject Leader of Innovation at the Warwick Manufacturing Group, current Visiting Professional Fellow at Aston Business School and Executive Director of the Birmingham Food Council, Kate Cooper.

[14]              Humans, as other animals, need small quantities of protein everyday, as we can’t store it, and energy easily sourced from carbohydrates with excess intake stored as fat. See Gosby, Jebb et al: Testing Protein Leverage in Lean Humans: A Randomised Controlled Experimental Study, PlosOne 2011

[15] 10-a-day? See Oyebode, Gordon-Dseagu, Walker et al Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data. J Epidemiol Community Health 2014;68:856-862

              Dagfinn Aune, et al Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality—a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 46, Issue 3, June 2017.


September 2022