The policy papers awaited from the government on agri-food and the environment needed to be published as a matter of urgency, said Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association, speaking at a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum seminar last month on the UK food supply chain.
”There is a lack of understanding of agri-food particularly in [Westminster],” claimed Bell. “I am critical of both the farming organisations and indeed the trade organisations because agri-food has slipped off Westminster’s agenda.
“Scotland, to its credit, has a minister for food. In Northern Ireland, agri-food is priority one in the programme for government. And the Welsh have made very significant moves on agri-food.”
‘Creating a £20bn trade deficit’
The importance of agri-food was also recognised and well supported in the Irish Republic, added Bell. “I suggest to you not so in Westminster. And yet this is an industry creating a £20bn trade deficit in the UK.”
This view was expressed even more strongly the following day in London by Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, speaking at a food sustainability conference organised by audit specialist NSF International.
“What’s going on over the next two years and probably for the next 10 years is the biggest change in the British food system for 50 years,” warned Lang.
“We are in the phoney war period and the bizarre thing is that our government is telling us nothing about what is going on in food. I have never known such disquiet and nervousness in the food system as there is now,” he said. “And that is because Brexit has actually put reality on hold. It’s ideology versus reality.”
‘Huge imbalances in world markets’
Lang warned that, regardless of Brexit, because of the negative impact of climate change, global water shortages, loss of biodiversity and the “huge imbalances in world markets”, food supply chain systems faced the biggest structural challenges they had ever met.
“The government has had for two years in embryo a 25-year food plan and 25-year environment plan and they haven’t been published,” Lang lamented. “It’s astonishing – it’s actually outrageous. This is sleepwalking into problems and we are not getting any direction.”
Lang presented 12 key points, including fundamental changes in political principles and values, which he argued the government needed to adopt if, as a nation, we were to achieve sustainability.