Food production should be valued, not taken for granted

Openfield’s head of research, compliance and shipping says that food prices are a hot topic for governments because much of our livestock relies on imported feed which is not easily grown in the UK.

Food prices are a hot topic for any government and ours seems almost obsessed with them. History has proven that a hungry nation will tend to be a volatile nation but the desire to fill modern retail consumers’ endless appetite for choice may mean that a nation with limited choice becomes a volatile nation. Global influences have left many traditional dishes a thing of the past, yet most of the food we put on our plates still originates from a farmer somewhere in the world.

Some produce we eat can be grown very quickly, however many field crops take the best part of a year, with some meat production taking many years, yet most meals only take a matter of minutes to eat and are largely affordable.

Changes in lifestyle and food choice have led to chicken becoming the number one meat of choice in the UK, overtaking beef just a year or so ago. The UK now slaughters over 20 million UK chickens a week, while still importing more, which is needed to supplement our seemingly endless appetite. Luckily the time line to produce a chicken is short. Day old chicks are grown to a commercial slaughter weight in less than six weeks, but this only works if food and environments are closely monitored.

Commercially bred chickens rely on a high protein cereal and soya-based diet and with the UK chicken industry increasing in volume by close to 3% a year this is good news for UK cereal producers. Around 55% to 57% of a chicken’s diet is wheat, meaning UK chickens will eat over four million tonnes of predominantly UK wheat a year. This ability to feed domestic cereals to domestic livestock is important for the food chain and food miles, but unfortunately UK chickens also need to eat a similar amount of imported soya meal.

Much of our livestock currently relies on imported feed stuffs which don’t grow easily or commercially in the UK. Before global trade was easy and relatively cheap, the UK population ate what was available, and we may just need to remember that in the future. Efficient and heavily supplied supply chains, and freedom to trade with no barriers, should never be taken for granted and neither should low food prices.

We need to value our food more and remember how lucky we are to have it, while at the same time appreciating our countryside. Today’s farmers face huge uncertainties including bad weather, disease, storage and price volatility when growing livestock or any type of crop. When you add to these uncertainties the food safety rules and regulations that must be adhered to along the supply chain, it’s a huge job to ensure the final product complies with all the consumers requirements, yet one that is largely taken for granted.

Food fads change almost daily. Chickens can be reared relatively quickly, but there aren’t many other commodities that can be. If trade issues were to arise, the UK population may just have to ‘get what they get, not get upset and pay the price!’