Policies about the production and availability of food have moved well up the agenda for UK politicians, delegates at a conference in London have been told.

“When we left the EU, food security was not deemed important. In fact, it was deemed to be globally resolved so we would just import the food that we need,” said National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters.

The Wiltshire farmer said recent events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have contributed to a change of mindset about food security.

“Finally, we see politicians are starting to take it seriously,” she said.

Batters said Rishi Sunak, the UK’s new Prime Minister, made key pledges to support food production when he addressed NFU members during the Conservative Party leadership campaign this summer.

“He committed to chairing a summit about domestic food production. He agreed to putting a statutory framework around our levels of self-sufficiency and where we should be growing food,” Batters said.

The third commitment that Sunak gave NFU members was to make sure that at least 50% of food sourced through government catering contracts is locally produced. “I believe it is a game changer, as long as he is committed to doing in November what he said in August,” Batters said.

Food politics

Also speaking to the Institute of Agricultural Management on Tuesday, Professor Tim Lang argued that food security had become a priority for governments across the world, and not just in the UK.

“Food security politics is back in a very big way and is going to shape the rest of this century,” he said.

The University of London academic said homegrown food currently accounts for 54% of all food that is consumed in the UK, when accounted for in terms of monetary value.

He argued that there was much more to food policy than simply the supply of food. Other considerations include the impact that food has on people’s health and its effect on the environment.

Taking this further, Lang said environmental factors had to go beyond just achieving net zero carbon emissions and should cover the likes of biodiversity and water quality.

‘Totally stupid’

“It is totally stupid to just have an attempt to redesign the British food system only around net zero,” he said.

Interestingly, Lord Deben, who chairs the UK government’s Climate Change Committee, responded by saying he agreed with Lang’s point.

In his address, the former UK Agriculture Minister said there has been a “delusion” among policymakers since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

“It has three parts. Firstly, there would never be another European war.

“The second is we believed we would always get the energy we needed and third is we would always get the food we needed.

“Two have been forced on us with the fighting in Ukraine and the shortage of energy. The bit that hasn’t come home yet is the whole question of food security,” Lord Deben said.

Climate chair criticises plant-based foods

Food companies that promote plant-based alternatives as a means of protecting the environment have been heavily criticised by the chair of the UK’s Climate Change Committee.

Speaking in London on Tuesday, Lord Deben said the debate about the environmental impact of livestock farming should not be driven by companies that sell fake meat and milk products.

“These are businesspeople who are running a campaign to get people to buy their products. They should be treated that way, and not seen as apostles of the future,” the Conservative Peer said.

Lord Deben defended recommendations by the Climate Change Committee that meat and dairy consumption in the UK should fall by 20% by 2030 but added that livestock should remain an important part of UK agriculture.

“The truth is we need pasture-fed meat. The country that has the lowest carbon footprint for beef is Britain and therefore we should be eating British meat. We should be eating less meat, but we should be eating better meat,” he said.


Lord Deben also pointed out that although some plant-based foods can have lower greenhouse gas emissions than meat and dairy products, they can still be environmentally damaging.

He gave examples of almond and avocado production which is known to have detrimental impacts on water quality.

“Nobody should drink almond milk, because it is most damaging to the environment. Nobody should eat avocados; they may be plants but they are destroying the water in most of the places where they come from,” he said.

“We have to be serious about these ridiculous, simplistic answers. I have been asked to speak an event that features a plant-based dinner, and that is why I am not going.”

Brexit is not done yet, says NFU president

NFU president Minette Batters has challenged the claim that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered Brexit during his time in Downing Street.

“It always amazed me that Boris Johnson was deemed as getting Brexit done. Brexit will never be truly done until the NI protocol is resolved,” she told the Institute of Agricultural Management event.

“It has been at the forefront of all discussions and challenges. There is a herculean job to get the NI protocol resolved and to get the DUP prepared to form a government,” Batters said.

Also commenting, Conservative Party politician Lord Deben was scathing in his assessment of a UK government bill which aims to override parts of the NI protocol without consent from the EU.

“It is the worst piece of legislation that I have seen in 43 years in parliament. It is utterly, utterly unacceptable. It means that Britain does not keep its word,” he said.

New NI soil scheme is ‘extraordinary’

The Soil Nutrient Health Scheme which is being rolled out in NI by DAERA was praised by Professor John Gilliland during his address to the Institute of Agricultural Management event in London.

The £45m project, which will be open to all NI farmers over a four-year period, will give details of the soil nutrient status of all fields, as well as an estimate of overall carbon stocks on each farm.

“The scheme is extraordinary and is unparalleled anywhere in the world. For once, something good is coming out of NI,” Gilliland said.

The Devenish Nutrition director was critical of the current system which is used for accounting greenhouse gases.

He pointed out that a typical farm will have emissions across a range of inventory categories, such as agriculture, land use, energy, and waste.

Gilliland explained that this means many steps that farmers take to cut emissions are often not reflected appropriately within the greenhouse gas inventory.

He said installing solar panels on shed roofs, building an anaerobic digestion plant, or increasing soil carbon levels cannot be used to lower emissions from agriculture.

“We need policy to recognise that agriculture is a round peg, the greenhouse gas inventory is a square box, and round pegs don’t go into square boxes,” Gilliland said.