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How reliant is the UK on imported food?

30 September 2010 by
How reliant is the UK on imported food?

There may be renewed interest in locally sourced produce, but food self-sufficiency has actually declined in the last decade. John Porter examines how reliant the UK is on imports, and whether we can satisfy demand from our own shores.
British Food Fortnight 2010, which ends on Sunday (3 October), promoted itself with the message "Grown Here, Not Flown Here". The slogan was selected by a public vote and reflects a view increasingly held by many people, that air-freighting fresh produce into a country which grows some of the world's finest fruit and veg amounts to economic and environmental madness.

When the ash cloud from the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano grounded air traffic across most of Europe in April and May this year, once the novelty of interviewing stranded travellers wore off, the media turned its attention to the issue of air-freighted food imports.

"Flight ban could leave UK short of fruit and veg" was a typical headline - interestingly, it came from The Guardian, not usually noted for sensationalist reporting. The ash cloud "could leave supermarkets short of perishable products within days", the article claimed.

However, reading further on revealed that the products mainly under threat were the likes of Ghanaian pineapple chunks, Thai baby sweet corn and Kenyan roses. Hardly the stuff to provoke food riots by their absence, except possibly in some of the livelier branches of Waitrose.

In fact, air freight accounts for a fairly small amount of UK fresh produce. According to the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC), which represents growers and importers, just 1.53% of fresh fruit and vegetables imported into the UK arrive by air-freight, and 60% of those arrive in the hold of passenger aircraft, rather than on dedicated flights.

There is a wider issue to consider, though. Even though road and sea freight has less of an impact than air freight, Defra figures show that, in all, about 60% of fruit and vegetables we eat are imported to the UK, mainly from within the EU. The Soil Association says UK food self-sufficiency has declined over the past decade and we have become more reliant on imported food. Concerns about the carbon footprint of well-travelled food is a concern for many consumers, but both the carbon footprint issue, as well as food security, are increasingly high on the political agenda.

If a future government were to bow to political pressure and either severely restrict food imports into the UK, or impose green taxes to make such imports prohibitively expensive, what would be the implications for the food service sector?

In the aftermath of the ash cloud disruption, one of the leading industry voices calling for a stronger focus on food produced within the UK was BaxterStorey chief executive Alastair Storey. However, like most of the business community, Storey is not calling for statutory action.

"I certainly don't think there should be trade restrictions imposed," he says. "We're part of a single trading community within the EU anyway, and there are clear benefits to trade with other countries. But, we are an island laden with great produce, and when all else is equal we should be doing everything possible to source that produce. I don't think as an industry we're always as clever at that as we should be.

"We should give more consideration to the value of local and seasonal produce, as well as taking into account the food miles and carbon footprint of the produce we use, and have more regard for the quality of what we produce in our own backyard."


INDIGENOUS CROPS

Imports provide consumers with produce grown outside the UK season as well as varieties which cannot be grown in the UK because of our climate. Sian Thomas, communications manager of the FPC, says that the consortium believes "UK growers have a significant opportunity to increase the sustainable production of indigenous crops suited to our climate". The FPC has called on Defra to identify indigenous crops with greater production potential than is achieved currently and support producers to maximise this potential.

Even so, Britain without imported produce would be a very different place. Trade such as bananas from the West Indies and citrus from the Middle East goes back centuries. Zeemat Anjari, business development manager for the New Covent Garden produce market, says: "I think we would suffer because it would be a big change in culture. The trade in imported produce goes back to Roman times and we've always had big ports which have been major hubs of global trade.

"I certainly wouldn't want to imply that we couldn't be self-sufficient in produce if we had to be, but it would mean that we'd have to show far more respect for the horticultural land that we have available for production than we do at the moment - it would need to be treasured."

A ban on air freight would, says Rob Beale, commercial manager for Brakes-owned produce supplier Pauleys, result in "a complete cut-off of supply, especially from key suppliers further afield such as Kenya".

He adds: "There is no alternative plan in this case, importing the air-freighted fresh produce by sea freight is not an option with 10-20 days' lead time, as it would spoil in transit. In these situations, we would have to rely on frozen produce."

Last year, 51% of produce supplied by Pauleys was sourced from UK farms, ahead of the market, and the aim is to supply 60% of UK-sourced fresh produce by the end of 2011.

"No matter what our objectives are, we will always be reliant on produce imported from overseas. Customers demand out-of-season and exotic produce which cannot possibly be grown in the UK all year round," Beale says.

"We always look at the UK first and research if produce can be farmed successfully here, will meet demand and come in at the right price. Normally, the latter two are the downfall, and in most circumstances it is just as environmentally and economically viable to source produce from abroad. Without considering price, there is an opportunity to increase produce sourced from the UK with the likes of controlled atmosphere farming."

UK producers are working to increase production of produce such as onions, peppers and tomatoes in the UK using such advanced techniques, but developments are in the early stages.

How could the UK infrastructure cope with the increased demand if food imports dried up? Some products, such as rice, tea and coffee will always need to be imported - coffee alone generates more than £4b in food service sales annually, according to analyst Allegra Strategies.

Coping without them would force significant changes, according to David Barton, director of purchasing at buying group PSL. "Farming is concentrated around UK strengths such as root crops, apples, pears, and so on. For farmers to grow more in the UK, it would require more land being turned over to agriculture, and more intensive methods of production. This would result in a greater demand for pesticides used on crops to increase yield, and potentially more GM crops and animals that are resistant to disease and grow at a far higher yield.

"This would require a huge change in customer understanding and demand for GM crops, and far more intensive methods."

Chefs would also have to adjust, Barton adds. "Demand would outweigh supply. The industry would have to engineer menus and thought processes to take this in to account. Seasonal produce would come to the fore as chefs would not have the benefit of purchasing out of season, such as strawberries at Christmas."

Produce growers would also have to compete for land with the livestock industry in a nation without food imports. The UK currently produces about two-thirds of the beef and lamb we eat, and about half the pork.

Tony Goodger, food service trade sector manager for BPEX, makes the point that we have become very picky eaters. "We consume about half the offal we did about 20 years ago, and that's down to consumer taste. It's not wasted, since it's exported, but chefs should think more carefully - don't just order pork loin steaks, perhaps order a head and serve pig cheek, or make brawn.

"If we ate all the animal it would improve the situation, but not to the extent that we could be self-sufficient. We would need to breed more animals. We'd also need to look at other sources of protein. For example, there was a big media fuss not long ago about a butcher that was selling squirrel - but if we eat pheasant and rabbit, then why not squirrel?"

Consumers, whether they can be persuaded to eat squirrel nuggets or not, hold the key to change, believes food consultant Stephen Minall. "McDonald's has responded to its customers and done a great job in terms of changing its supply chain, and now only serves beef and potatoes from English and Irish farms in its UK restaurants . It may not be the most popular brand with ‘foodies', but they're showing that it can be done.

"Change is ultimately down to consumers. There's no incentive for restaurants and pub groups to invest in changes to the supply chain when they're mainly answerable to banks and venture capitalists who want cost savings. Consumers can put on the pressure."

WINE OR BEER?

The UK is the world's biggest importer of wine. To be clear, that's not a per capita figure or any other measure which takes the size of the country or population into account. Quite simply, we import more wine than any other nation, more than 1.6 billion bottles in 2009, according to figures from the International Wine and Spirit Record.

While our domestic wine industry has developed strongly in recent years, if wine imports were restricted or imported wine became prohibitively expensive, the industry could not meet the shortfall.

Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager of the English Wine Producers trade association, explains: "Our average wine production in this country has been two million bottles a year over the past five years and has been growing steadily, so it was three million bottles last year and will rise to five million over the next few years - but clearly, that's minuscule compared with the billions of bottles we import.

"If imports were banned, we would clearly struggle to meet the volume demand from consumers. There would be a drive to turn more land over to production, but it typically takes four years to harvest your first grapes, so that's five years until your first bottles of still wine, and seven for sparkling wine."

Beer - which likes to claim the status of Britain's national drink - might step into the breach. About 90% of the beer drunk in the UK is produced here and the boom in microbrewing means there is always a local brewer on tap.

Research earlier this year by carbon footprinting expert Mike Berners-Lee calculated that a pint of cask beer from a local brewery bought in a pub has a carbon footprint of 300g of CO2 equivalent, compared to 900g for a bottle of imported lager bought from a supermarket.

Julian Grocock, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, says: "Local beers are ideally placed to meet consumers' growing desire to buy ethically, offering them genuine provenance, low food miles and contribution to the local community. Just as people now like to know which farm their meat and vegetables come from, they also want their beer to be brewed locally from local - or at least British - barley and hops."

HOW TO APPROACH SUSTAINABLE SOURCING

Analysis by Allegra Strategies identifies these key issues for food service operators to consider when planning a sustainable sourcing strategy:

Define local: There is no legal definition of "local" food and consumer expectations differ widely. The Sustainable Restaurant Association defines local as within a 100 mile radius of London businesses and 50 miles for the rest of the UK. â- Help small suppliers comply: For many small suppliers the main barrier to supplying larger chains is the complex legislation and red tape that has to be negotiated to become approved suppliers. Offer support with compliance and agree long-term relationships where possible.

â- Work together: Groups of food service businesses working together can create local supplier hubs to co-ordinate deliveries between different outlets, as well as increase purchasing power and better manage the supply chain.

â- Engage employees: Senior executives in food service often believe local sourcing is important, but this does not always get passed down the business. Fully engaging employees in a sustainability programme will harness their enthusiasm.

â- Holistic approach: A sustainable approach to sourcing needs to look at the overall impact, such as the effect on suppliers from overseas who rely on UK trade, as well as related sustainability issues such as recycling, ethical sourcing and the environmental impact of the overall business.

AIR FREIGHT

While about 1.5% of fresh produce and less than 1% of all imported food is air freighted, the Soil Association estimates it contributes 11% of the carbon emissions from UK food distribution.

Products which are typically imported by air include:

â- Exotic fruits, for example, lychees and dragon fruit.
â- Pre-packed fruit salads.
â- Fresh flowers.
â- Out-of-season produce, for example, asparagus, strawberries and baby sweetcorn.

Your supplier should always be able to tell you how produce arrives in the UK. However, bear in mind that some countries rely on this trade.

The Fresh Produce Consortium points out that 60% of fresh produce exports from Kenya come to the UK. In Kenya, horticulture contributes 5% of GDP and employs about 2.5 million people.

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