UK food security in spotlight at British Pig & Poultry Fair

Defra farming minister Mark Spencer said British food security had been taken granted for too long
Defra farming minister Mark Spencer said British food security had been taken granted for too long

Food security is critical to the UK’s national security, and the government and supply chain need to do more to create a resilient and profitable farming industry.

That’s according to speakers at the ongoing British Pig & Poultry Fair, which was opened by Defra farming minister Mark Spencer on Wednesday (15 May).

Consumers and politicians had taken food security for granted for too long, he said, adding that the issue was now higher up the agenda than ever before.

"It’s vital that consumers understand how important the industry is," Mr Spencer told delegates at the biennial event.

“I know there have been some challenges along the way, but there are also exciting opportunities, and I want to help you embrace those opportunities.

He added: “I want to thank you for keeping high-quality food on our shelves, day in and day out."

Referencing this week’s Farm to Fork Summit at Number 10, he highlighted the grant funding available for improving animal health and welfare, as well the government’s review of fairness in the supply chain.

He also noted the need for affordable labour, automation, and disease prevention, alongside investment in creating new export opportunities.

But delegates pointed out the conflicting pressures of demanding lower stocking rates and higher welfare systems, while at the same time preventing development of the new units required to retain existing stock numbers.

In the poultry meat outlook, producer Will Raw said reduced stocking densities would improve performance and welfare, but the sector would require 20% more floor space just to stand still.

He asked: “Is the time frame realistic – do we have time to build the sheds; and will planning and environmental permitting allow these sheds? Or will we have empty shelves?”

Reduced stocking rates would also increase costs of production at a time when consumers remain very sensitive to price, creating a conflict for industry direction, Mr Raw said.

He added: “We have a race to the bottom on price alongside a race to the top on welfare” This squeeze on margins is seriously affecting producer confidence."

Around 15% of broiler producers were unsure whether they would remain in production beyond 2025 and two-thirds had no plans to reinvest over the next two years, he noted.

“Why should an industry with such good retail sales have so little confidence?” asked Mr Raw. “Our greatest asset, namely affordability, is also our greatest weakness.”

Ruth Edge, sustainability manager at KFC, said the changing climate would increasingly impact producers in terms of feed supplies and housing environments, with the drive to net zero presenting particular challenges.

“We all need to come together to find out how to meet these challenges,” she told delegates.

Over 70% of KFC’s carbon emissions stem from chicken production, most of that from feed – especially soya – so the firm has committed to deforestation-free soya by 2025.

Sourcing that sustainable soya – which will be a legal requirement from January 2025 across the EU - is going to be a challenge for everyone in the pig and poultry sectors, with tight availability driving prices towards a £100/t premium over conventional soya.

Taken in the context of higher labour, machinery, building and finance costs, producers are going to have to be paid more to remain in business, said the National Pig Association’s Rob Mutimer.

Speaking in the pig outlook forum, he said that the pig herd had stabilised after two years of sharp decline, and confidence in the sector was starting to recover.

However, many buildings were in serious need of investment, and the likely move to adaptive farrowing – which needs 30-35% more space – would require more new sheds to be built.

Given the cost and difficulty of obtaining planning and environmental permissions, that was likely to lead to further decline in sow numbers, he said.

It's a similar picture across the EU, explained Mark Haighton at Sofina Foods, with production likely to drop over the next six years.

This flies in the face of the global trend, which will see production increase by 7.2% by 2030, with exports also rising, driven predominantly by demand in China and Asia.

Although exports were welcomed, the threats posed by illegal trade were hot on the agenda, with African swine fever a particular risk due to lack of funding and controls at Dover port.

“We’re one ham sandwich away from total lockdown,” said Mr Haighton, adding that stringent biosecurity was therefore vital, alongside control of wild pigs and boar.

Biosecurity remains a key cornerstone of disease prevention in the egg sector, with the threat of avian influenza and salmonella ever present, said Gary Ford, chief executive at the British Egg Industry Council.

However, the sector was currently in a better place after a couple of very difficult years, he said, adding: “We’re in a buoyant market at the moment, which is very welcome and provides an opportunity to invest and futureproof your businesses."

Genetic progress and the shift to white laying hens is extending the period of lay to up to 120 weeks, which will benefit producer efficiencies and sustainability.

But he said more work was needed to drive consumer demand into which the industry can grow.

Rebecca Tonks at St Ewe Eggs agreed: “UK egg consumption is 175 eggs per person per year; in the US it’s 279 and in Japan it’s 320, so we’ve got some work to do.

"Securing 100% British sourcing by the public sector would help, alongside greater product innovation and education around healthier diets.

“But we should be positive and proud – we are feeding the nation. We just need to be more transparent with consumers and share the journey."