Sunak’s gastronomic summit promises a star guest and lots of rhubarb

Farmers throwing in the towel amid high costs and labor shortages and falling domestic production of some foods have resulted in repeated emptiness on British supermarket shelves, much to the chagrin of shoppers.

UK agriculture has had a torrid few years navigating the fallout from Brexit and the pandemic at a time when sluggish consumers are reassessing what they can afford to put in their shopping baskets.

It is no surprise, then, that the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents the interests of some 55,000 farmers in England and Wales, has announced the very existence of the food summit convened by Rishi Sunak this week at No. 10 Downing Street as a victory.

The impetus for the event is clear: The past few years have brought continual crises, from pigs trapped on farms due to labor shortages in slaughterhouses, to millions of pounds of crops rotting in fields amidst the lack of temporary workers, even egg farmers packing during a record outbreak of avian flu.

This year, the NFU reported a 40-year low in domestic salad production, while egg production fell to its lowest level in nine years in 2022.

Against this backdrop, Tuesday’s meeting will bring together representatives of farmers, food and retail trade bodies, along with some of the heads of Britain’s biggest supermarkets, to discuss the government’s aim to boost cooperation across the supply chain and support the resilience of the food sector.

The exact guest list remains under wraps, giving way to speculation that TV presenter and celebrity farmer Jeremy Clarkson, whose attempts to grow food on his Cotswolds farm, Diddly Squat, have been documented on a TV series, also received an invite for issue #10.

NFU president Minette Batters has been pushing the prime minister to chair a food summit, which she wants to make annual, since he promised to set up the event during the 2022 Conservative Party leadership race.

Farm workers picking lollo rosso lettuce near Southport, Lancashire. The National Union of Farmers wants to take measures to ensure national food production at the current 60%. Photograph: MediaWorldImages/Alamy

The union has said it wants “action, not words”, and has called on ministers to commit to ensuring the proportion of food produced domestically at the current 60%, along with introducing a legal obligation to report levels of production. It is also asking the government to use the powers of the Farm Bill to make supply chains fairer.

Many farmers were already finding it difficult before Russia invaded Ukraine and saw the cost of their basic products, known as the three Fs (feed, fuel and fertilizer), rise, forcing many to grow food at a loss.

Cynics say stubbornly high inflation, partly driven by food and drink prices rising 19.1% in the year to March, according to the Office for National Statistics, may have put pressure on the government. to hold the meeting, particularly after the prime minister made Halving inflation one of his five promises to be achieved by the end of the year.

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The Conservatives will also be well aware that Labor has wandered into what is traditionally Tory territory. Opposition leader Keir Starmer promised at the NFU’s annual conference in February that under his rule, half of all food purchased by the public sector would be produced locally and sustainably.

The problems of reliance on foreign imports for salad items such as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce, brought to the UK from warmer climes during the cold months, were also exposed earlier this year when bad weather in Spain and Morocco it caused voids in the shelves and supermarkets. impose limits on how many buyers could buy.

Experts have blamed the food shortages on the government’s approach, described as “leaving it to Tesco and others”, relying on supermarket supply chains to keep shelves stocked, rather than helping suppliers with supplies. rising costs.

Few of those attending the summit on Tuesday will have any doubts about the pressures on the food supply chain. Growers, processors and retailers alike have seen their margins squeezed amid rising costs and a tight job market. However, it is not clear what can be achieved by bringing together groups with possibly conflicting interests. Everyone will want to keep their piece of the pie.

One way to convince farmers not to quit would be for consumers to pay more for their food, but few will find such a suggestion acceptable in a cost-of-living crisis, let alone a prime minister considering his re-election chances.

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