UK risks sleepwalking into food supply crisis, says farmers’ union

Dairy farmers are warning that a chronic shortage of workers is hitting milk production and further fuelling food price inflation, and are calling for urgent action to stop the situation getting worse.

The government risks “sleepwalking” into a food supply crisis unless it provides crucial support for British farmers struggling with the soaring cost of fuel, fertiliser and feed, the National Farmers’ Union has warned.

Rising costs could result in supply problems for energy-intensive crops including tomatoes, cucumbers and pears – which are on track for their lowest yields since records began in 1985 – and rationing at supermarkets as recently experienced with eggs, the union said.

The union said milk prices were also likely fall below the cost of production and that beef farmers were weighing whether to cut down on the number of cows being bred for slaughter in light of surging costs.

Surging input costs linked to the war in Ukraine as well as the pandemic were to blame, the NFU said, having more than tripled the price of fertiliser since 2019, and pushed the cost of fuel and feed up by about 75%. That is on top of a six-fold increase in wholesale gas rices, and increased checks and red tape for importers linked to Brexit.

The union is calling for state support for farmers, who it said had been forced out of business since the Covid outbreak, noting that the UK had lost about 7,000 agricultural businesses since 2019.

“Shoppers up and down the country have for decades had a guaranteed supply of high-quality affordable food produced to some of the highest animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards in the world,” the NFU president, Minette Batters, told the BBC.

“But British food is under threat … at a time when global volatility is threatening the stability of the world’s food production, food security and energy security.”

“I fear the country is sleepwalking into further food supply crises, with the future of British fruit and vegetable supplies in trouble,” she added.

The union is urging the government to lift a cap on seasonal overseas workers and introduce a food security target that would monitor and report domestic food production levels.

It is also calling for an investigation into whether “exceptional market conditions” should be declared in light of the disruption to egg production, which has been exacerbated by the avian flu outbreak. Such a move would allow the Department for Environment, Food and rural Affairs to provide support to egg farmers who are facing financial difficulty.