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Food security does not require self sufficiency

white and black cattle on the field photograph
Written by Catherine McBride

Catherine McBride contests the Government’s claim that the UK is close to self-sufficient in a range of key foods. Much UK food production relies heavily on imported feed. She argues that it is diversity of suppliers that gives the UK food security not its own production.

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Does the UK need to be self-sufficient in its food supply?

George Eustice wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph on Easter Saturday entitled We will help British farmers fill British fridges. The subtitle was ‘Domestic production will be at the heart of the Government’s new food strategy’. Maybe Eustice wanted to plug his new Sustainable Farming Incentive and thought that tying it to self-sufficiency would be a good idea but unless the UK Government has commandeered this year’s harvest – food grown by private farmers could be sold to any user or country that is prepared to pay for it.

The lack of a wheat crop in the Ukraine and Russia, sanctions on Russian wheat exports and shipping costs is not just a problem for the Ukraine and Russia, it is a problem for the world. The two countries produce roughly a quarter of the world’s wheat exports most years. While the world’s other big suppliers: the USA, Canada and Australia combined produce about 40%, provided that Australia isn’t having a drought. On the bright side we do have a ratified trade agreement with Canada although not yet one with Australia.

Eustice claimed in his op-ed that the UK is ‘largely self-sufficient in wheat production growing 88 per cent of all of the wheat that we need here.’ This statistic probably comes from Defra’s Agriculture in the UK 2020 (AUK) survey, the latest version says that figure was only 81% for milling wheat used in bread. The UK’s wheat harvest in 2020 was the smallest since 1981 at only 9.7 million tonnes, the UK had to import over 2.1 million tonnes of wheat, of which 1.13 million tonnes was milling wheat.

Over half of the wheat the UK produces in any year is green wheat used for animal feed, but we are also using wheat for biofuel, although we didn’t in 2020 due to the scarce supply. Arable yields will depend on relative prices of alternative crops before planting and on weather and pestilence after planting. And in the case of the 2022 crop – tanks on fields preventing planting, sky high fertilizer prices and blockades of Black Sea ports preventing exports.

But wheat wasn’t the only thing wrong with Eustice’s op-ed. According to Eustice the UK is: ‘86 per cent self-sufficient in beef, fully self-sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes.’ None of which is completely true:

  • The Beef percentage is local production as a proportion of total consumption (local production, plus imports, minus exports). This calculation also comes from Defra’s AUK 2020 and it assumes that imports and exports are interchangeable products, but they aren’t. In general, the UK imports more expensive cuts of meat and exports the cheaper cuts: offal, shins, brisket etc. The UK also imports live cattle for fattening from Ireland and Germany. More importantly, most UK cattle spend the winter in sheds and are finished in shed and in both cases are fed with cattle feeds containing imported ingredients.

For the UK to be providing 86% of its own beef: its beef would need to be exclusively fed UK grown grass or grains; the UK would need to breed its own calves for fattening; and UK consumers would need to eat all of the cuts of meat presently exported.

  • Similarly, ‘Fully self -sufficient in liquid milk’ is only half true, although the cows are local, a lot of the feed is imported. While there are hopefully still some fully grass-fed, free-range dairies in the UK, the massive increase in milk production per cow, from 4,100 litres per cow in 1975 to almost 8200 litres per cow in 2020 is in part due to the specialist dairy cattle feeds that include imported maize, soy meal or other protein crops. Roughly 25% of animal feed is used to feed dairy cows in the UK.
  • The same is true for Eustice’s claim that the UK is ‘close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry and eggs’. The actual figure in AUK 2020 is 96% but this also assumes that UK consumers would find the 487,000 tonnes of chicken breast meat we import to be interchangeable with the 409,000 tonnes of chicken legs, wings and offal that we export. The figure also overlooks the fact that the UK’s 1.174 billion broiler chickens and the 118.4 million laying chickens mostly eat imported corn and soy-based feeds. Without imported feed, the idea that the UK is self-sufficient in chicken and egg production collapses.
  • However, for Eustice to brag that the UK is self-sufficient in carrots and swedes, overlooks the elephant sized vegetable in the room – the UK imports literally millions of tonnes of vegetables each year worth over $4 billion. The UK isn’t even self-sufficient in carrots either and routinely imports about 80,000 tonnes to add to its 170,000-tonne domestic production.

The UK has many suppliers from both inside and outside the EU including Israel, Morocco, and Senegal. It is this diversity of suppliers that gives the UK food security not its own carrot production.

  • Finally, lamb. Yes, here the UK does produce more than it consumes and exports the rest (mostly to France) before it turns into mutton. The UK then imports lamb from the antipodes when its own lambs have turned to mutton. There is also some carcass balance here as well, the UK market prefers legs of lamb for roasting which New Zealand helps to supply, while the UK exports it’s lamb shanks and shoulders to France. Fortunately, UK sheep still eat UK grown grass for most of their lives, although some farmers are now finishing sheep in sheds with grain and pulp-based feeds similar to those used to finish cattle.


The changing British diet.

So, the UK could be self-sufficient in lamb production. Instead of exporting lamb to France, we could freeze it and so not need to import more from New Zealand later in the year – but consumer preference would have to be dropped – we would have to give up our preference for roast leg of lamb and eat all parts of the sheep. But lamb is the exception rather than the rule for UK self-sufficient agriculture.

There is another reason that the UK is self-sufficient in lamb – the population doesn’t eat that much of it anymore. Although once the main meat choice in the UK diet, since the introduction of intensive chicken production after the second world war, the UK now eats over 7 times as much chicken as lamb and five times as much pork. Lamb has replaced chicken as the Sunday Roast. The UK consumes over 2 million tonnes of chicken a year, 1.4 million tonnes of pork, 1 million tonnes of beef, but only 279 thousand tonnes of sheep meat (lamb and mutton combined). This has a lot to do with price. Despite not requiring specialist housing or imported feed, a standard leg of lamb for roasting retails at about 30% more per kilo than a standard leg of pork. Industrially produced chicken is the UK’s main meat source, with industrially produced pork coming in second. The increased immigration from central, eastern, and northern European countries, whose diets are based on pork has probably also added to this dietary change. Limiting supply and keeping prices high will ensure that UK consumers continue to choose chicken or pork. If lamb is to remain part of the British menu, we will need to find a cheaper way to produce it.

Provided we overlook the almost 9 million tonnes of cereals and oilseeds imported for animal feed, liquid milk is the only dairy product where the UK could be considered to be self-sufficient. The UK is usually a large exporter of milk, mostly to Ireland, where it is turned into higher value goods such as butter and cheddar and sold back to us. The UK is also a net importer of yogurt and fermented milk products from Germany and France. If the UK were seriously interested in becoming self-sufficient, making its own higher value dairy products would be a good place to start – after all we already produce the main ingredient. But locally made products may well be more expensive for UK consumers. Although being self-sufficient sounds like a good idea, sometimes it is cheaper to import goods mass produced for international markets.

Eustice’s op-ed goes on to say that the ‘Covid pandemic was a reminder that domestic food production matters’ and that the country’s ‘production to supply ratio is healthy’. Has he forgotten about the UK farmers who demanded that they be allowed to charter planes to fly in cheap labourers from eastern Europe while the rest of the country was in Covid lockdown? Surely self-sufficiency includes labour as well.

But Eustice skips over this non sequitur and claims that he is putting ‘food security at the heart of the food strategy white paper’. Let us hope that Eustice’s version of food security doesn’t require the UK’s consumers to only eat home grown ingredients, produced with home-grown animal feed, tendered to by home-grown labour. If it does, we will be left with a very meagre diet.


Investment payments vs Environment payments

The point of Eustice’s article was probably to get some publicity for his increased farming investment Fund, now £48 million, used to supply farmers with grants to invest in new equipment to boost their productivity. That is a great idea. But it won’t make the UK self-sufficient. We don’t have the climate or the land mass for that. Even more so now that Defra environmental Countryside Stewardship payments are encouraging some of the UK’s already limited agricultural land to be used for sowing wildflowers and birdseed.

According to AUK 2020, oats used for animal feed had an average yield of 4.9 tonnes per hectare in 2020 and an average price of £105 per tonne: producing revenue of £514.50 per hectare, before considering the cost of production. But under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, Defra is paying farmers £511 per hectare for AB1 Nectar flower mix and £640 per hectare for ‘OP2 Wild bird seed mixture’ as well as payments for many other things not related to producing food or feed.

Planting wildflowers or birdseed may play well to the environmental lobby, but it won’t help the UK become self-sufficient. But growing more animal feed would help. One benefit of the Ukraine invasion is that it has hopefully made growing oats for animal feed in the UK more valuable than growing wildflowers, as well as making it a more sensible choice.

Eustice also wants to promote Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) where Defra is paying farmers to plant cover crops and add organic matter to soils. This is a good idea. Adding organic matter to soil improves soil fertility and yields, while planting cover crops when the fields are bare reduces soil erosion and soil compaction while absorbing atmospheric carbon. According to a study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intensively managed agricultural soils have lost 50% to 70% of their pre-cultivation carbon and that cover crops could help sequester 0.22 tons of carbon per acre per year. This converts to about half a tonne per hectare per year and the current ICE December futures price of carbon emissions is £80 per tonne. The Government SFI program is paying farmers £22 per ha to £40 per ha for arable soils and from £28 per ha to £58 per ha for Improved Grassland soils. Besides the generous rates for improved grasslands, why should farmers be paid by the government to plant cover crops when the UK now has an actual carbon emissions trading market? Carbon sequestration has a financial value in the UK, so why aren’t we letting farmers sell their sequestered carbon on the market? All that is needed is a reliable system of carbon measurement and tracking.

Now that the UK is out of the EU, it is time the UK agriculture sector re-joined the free market and left behind its socialist reliance on government payments.


Part 2 of this article ‘Could the UK ever be self-sufficient in food production’ will appear on this website next week

Catherine McBride is an economist who writes about trade and agriculture having spent many years trading equity, financial and agricultural commodity derivatives. She is a fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy think tank and a commissioner on the UK’s Trade and Agriculture Commission scrutinising the UK’s new trade agreements.

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Catherine McBride