Salad Days - UK food security
Mark Lumsdon-Taylor · October 27th 2023 · read
I have a plaque on the wall beside me that states: ‘Alcohol. Because no good story ever began with salad’.
Until now I might have agreed but, in recent weeks, things have changed. Thanks to a shortage of foods such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers, salad has become a hot news topic.
Why? Because poor weather in the south of Spain and Morocco has led to a supply deficit in UK supermarkets. How can that be?
Most importantly, the issue has led to a re-energizing of the critical debate around UK food security. It’s long overdue. How could we possibly find ourselves in a position where there are gaps on shelves because of something that has happened over 1,000 miles away? As a child I can vividly recall looking forward to the ‘Strawberry Season’. I cannot tell you how much I anticipated the first appearance each year of those sweat-tasting early garden peas.
The reason? Because in those days we ate the foods that were in season at the time.
Of course, changing consumer expectations have not been entirely driven by fresh food supply expansion. The mass distribution of frozen food in the fifties also fuelled a convenience fire that became a conflagration. I am not, for one moment, advocating a complete return to the days of total seasonality-dependence. After all, it’s hard to take away the choices that we all now see as basic rights. However, what I am advocating, is far better blending of the supply opportunities to optimise the UK harvest outputs.
The UK currently imports around 48% of total food consumed. Our vision should be that the UK reaches a level of security of at least 70%. That involves growers, processors, manufacturers and every part of the UK food-supply chain. It won’t happen until we make it happen.
Over the last 20+ years we have become selfish as consumers: everything we could possibly imagine appears to be available in the places we shop, 365 days of the year. Why would we want to upset that particular apple-cart? After all, it’s the very definition of ‘convenience’.
But this isn’t about consumer-bashing. How many of us, before the impacts of climate change began to be felt (rather than simply being ‘talked-about’) gave a great deal of thought to the item of fruit or veg on shelf in front of us? Why would we have expected consumers to think about whether it arrived there from a short distance away, or via a journey by plane, and a period in energy-intensive chilled or cold storage? Consumers tend to react to what they see in front of them, not the ‘history’ that preceded it.
The good news is that, today, an increasing number of consumers are asking the question. There are a number of reasons: Climate Change is certainly one of them, but pressure on family budgets, rising inflation and now, food shortages, are adding weight to the food security imperative.
Let’s all ensure that the discussion doesn’t drop back when tomatoes and cucumbers return to our shelves. Instead, let’s sustain the food security debate – amongst consumers, retailers and at the highest levels of government, so we can all see a return to the ‘salad days’.