The UK has a ‘cheap food’ culture driven by a complex combination of factors that are difficult to unpick and have proven stubbornly resistant to change. The UK retains an almost religious commitment to the sanctity of ‘personal consumer choice’ married with the high concentration of the food retail market in the hands of just ten big retailers. These factors have pressured the food system to be driven primarily by price and convenience over and above health, fair value, and environmental or ethical concerns. If we are to get the food system we deserve, we must improve the financial viability of farming and make farm work a well-paid and respected employment. But at the moment:
- Agriculture currently contributes £10.4bn of Gross Value Added (GVA) to the UK economy; but despite providing over 60% of the ‘raw materials’ (or ingredients) for all the food products we purchase (in cafes, restaurants and supermarkets), that £10.4bn is only 8% of the agri-food sector’s overall contribution to GVA. What this means is the income that farmers make from their produce is a fraction of the value of the food when it reaches us, via shops or restaurants. This “disconnect” between “what farmers do, their financial returns and food’s public health role” is symptomatic of the broken system we have.
- In 2017, Defra estimated that 40% of farms would make a loss without the existing EU subsidy, confirmed again by The National Audit Office in 2019. A 2019 Strutt and Parker study estimated that a drop in subsidies would see 75% of British farmers experience profitability cuts of 22–67% by 2027.
- Nearly 40% of people in agriculture, forestry and fishing and 60% of people in the food services sector are in low paid jobs.
- Only 8% of housing in rural areas is classed as affordable.
- While 70% of land in England is utilized for agriculture, the majority of this (around 60%) is used for grassland or rough pasture to graze animals .
- Up to 60% of prime arable land is used to produce crops, of which between a quarter and a third are fed to the 900 million animals farmed each year, nearly 13 for every person in the UK.
- Only 16% of fruit consumed in the UK is grown here.
- Much of the real environmental, social and health costs of food are hidden: the Sustainable Food Trust reported to the House of Commons Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment in 2020 that “for each £1 spent on food in the shops in the UK, consumers incur extra hidden costs of £1. In addition to the £120bn spent annually on food by consumers in the UK as a whole, the UK food system generates further costs of £120bn in external costs”.