For many years, the farming unions, academic experts, and manufacturers have stressed that food security is an issue that needs desperate attention and the last few months of lockdown and social distancing has shone a very bright light on these concerns. Chaired by Glyn Roberts, President of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, an eminent panel of experts were brought together in this virtual Royal Welsh Show to unpick the impacts and explore how the food industry could become more resilient.
In tandem with the pandemic, of course, Brexit is ever present, and both professors Bob Doherty and Kevin Morgan spoke of the ‘perfect storm’ ahead. Prof Doherty of IKnowFood said that with 30% of UK food imports coming from the EU, as well as a steady flow of reliable labour, a good relationship and an effective trade deal with Europe was critical.
Prof Morgan, of Cardiff University, argued that food was likely to be the first ‘flashpoint’ of Brexit. Whilst trade is a reserved UK Government matter – with the PM focussed on getting a trade deal with the US, no matter what the food safety and welfare standards – agricultural matters, food and environmental policies, are devolved powers exercised by the Welsh Government. With very different visions at Wales and UK levels on these issues, it seems inevitable that food will be at the forefront of this clash between the two institutions.
Changing the way that the public sector procures food has always been a key concern, which the pandemic has pushed further up the agenda. Gwyneth Ayres spoke of Carmarthenshire Council’s aspiration to realise its significant purchasing power and use this to support local food manufacturers and producers, whilst supporting the supply chain – where individual companies may be too small to act alone – to collaborate. Carmarthenshire are progressing this work with the advice of Prof Morgan, and funding from the Welsh Government.
David Morris from Welsh Government emphasised the importance of the sector to the Welsh Government and reassured the audience that support would be greater – not reduced – because of Covid and Brexit.
You would be forgiven for thinking that car production, steelmaking, or aviation were the biggest manufacturing sectors in the UK given the airtime and rolling news that these industries get. In fact, food and drink in the UK is the largest manufacturing sector, and Covid-19 has demonstrated that it is also the most important.
Food Supply Chains and Production – Global Outlook with a Local Strategy: What has Covid-19 Taught us?