Originally printed in the June 2023 issue of Produce Business.
By Dr. Manoj Dora, Professor in Sustainable Production and Consumption, Anglia Ruskin University
Calls for the government to provide better support to UK food producers have intensified recently, as supermarkets have been forced to ration sales of some fresh produce. Weather-related disruption has caused supply shortages of vegetables from places that include Spain and North Africa.
Food price hikes and produce shortages have been an ongoing problem for the UK recently — affecting everything from eggs to turkeys. In January 2023, food price inflation was at a nearly 50-year high of 16.7%. Further, the inflation rate for food and non-alcoholic beverages rose to 19.2% in March 2023, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Understanding the UK’s complex food supply chains can help explain why this is happening and also provides some ideas about how to prevent such shortages. Here are three potential solutions based on current problems with UK food production, supply and import practices.
1. Diversify sources of imported food
Although it’s one of the most food-import dependent countries in the world, the UK produces over 50% of vegetables consumed domestically, but only 16% of its fruit. Most of its fresh vegetables come from domestic and European sources, but its fruit supply is spread across the EU, Africa, the Americas and some domestic producers. Some of the main countries used for these imports include Spain, the Netherlands, Morocco and Egypt.
After Brexit, this dependency has become more expensive. This is because of new customs procedures and paperwork, which has led to delays and disruptions at ports and borders. Fresh produce with a short shelf life, such as lettuce, tomatoes and citrus fruits, are most affected by these changes.
The UK could diversify its sources of imported food to reduce reliance on particular regions or countries that may be subject to bad weather or other disruptions. Promoting local food systems could also reduce reliance on imported food.
2. Increase support for domestic food production
Boosting domestic food production could involve providing more subsidies or tax breaks to encourage farmers to grow more food. The government could also invest in research and development to improve yields, and create more favorable regulatory conditions for agriculture.
More immediate support is also necessary. Any fresh produce that is grown in the UK requires greenhouses. Significant increases in energy costs over the past year, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have added to the cost of production. Some reports indicate that farmers renewing their energy contracts last autumn faced cost increases of up to 400%.
The UK could also expand seasonal worker programs to allow more migrant workers during peak harvesting seasons.
3. Improve infrastructure and logistics
While factors like weather, war and worker shortages cause price rises and rationing, these issues also mask serious underlying supply chain problems that affect the networks used to transport goods from farm or factory to shop shelves.
Modern food supply chains are efficiency-driven, relying on the just-in-time delivery method. This type of “lean” thinking saves on storage costs, but leaves no margin of error if supply chain resilience is tested — as is partly happening at the moment in the UK. Indeed, just-in-time delivery is not effective in the face of a major shock, such as a pandemic, extreme weather conditions or changing geopolitical dynamics.
Earlier this year, some UK supermarkets rationed produce due to weather-related disruption to UK imports.
The UK’s food supply chains are also vulnerable to disruptions due to their use of the Port of Dover for food imports. It represents a significant bottleneck in the UK’s food distribution network.
Compounding this bottleneck, UK supermarkets tend to use large warehouses for storing and distributing produce that aren’t always close enough to stores to respond quickly to changes in demand or supply.
Investment in improving this infrastructure and logistics would make it easier and more cost-effective for food to be transported from farms to supermarkets and other retailers. This could involve improving port capacity, rail links and creating more efficient distribution networks between warehouses and shops.
PREVENTING FOOD WASTE
The problems with the UK food production industry and its supply chain not only lead to disruptions and shortages, but also food waste.
My research shows food producers’ operating costs are significantly higher across processing, storage and distribution as a result of poor transportation and when buyers change products. This, alongside machine maintenance and inefficiency issues, human errors and product defects, create food waste as well as higher costs.
The solutions above would help reduce costs and manage shortages, but could also address food waste by ensuring timely delivery of the products that people want and need to buy.
Professor Manoj Dora is the director of the Centre for Intelligent Supply Chains at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Manoj holds a doctorate from Ghent University in Belgium, and received a master’s degree in economics from Vanderbilt University, supported by International Ford Foundation. This article was originally published on The Conversation.