It’s not just energy bills that are rocketing; Vladimir Putin’s decision to illegally invade Ukraine will put your weekly shopping bill up too. Like the rest of us, farmers are being squeezed by the gas and oil crunch. But the war is also pushing the cost of fertiliser and animal feed to new heights. This is terrible news for farmers, your household budget, and Britain’s food security. But there is a solution.
Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, and Russia is the biggest producer of fertilisers. Both nations supply 12 per cent of global calories, including a quarter of the world’s wheat. Supply chain disruption caused by Putin’s war has caused wheat prices to soar to the highest price in a decade. Meanwhile, the cost of farmers’ red diesel has tripled and chemical fertiliser has risen with gas prices.
At home, we are lucky to be broadly self-sufficient in grain. We also produce roughly the equivalent volume of meat, eggs and dairy that we consume. So while the Ukraine crisis will not hugely impact our food supply, it will mean higher prices, hammering farmers and consumers.
The rising cost of grain will drive up flour and bread prices and make animal feed more expensive. We’re also dependent on imported fertilisers, pushing up farmers’ costs and potentially reducing the amount of food we produce if farms have to use less.
There is little the government can do to prevent the crisis in Ukraine from hitting supermarket shelves in the short term. And farmers are going to face a tough year of rising costs, heaped on top of existing challenges like shortages of farm workers and vets. But we can shield the UK from future global shocks by taking steps now to transform British farming and land use.
Firstly, we must help more farms transition to sustainable methods to make soils more fertile and cut down on expensive artificial fertilisers. Leaving the EU has given us the freedom to help revolutionise British farming, and the government is rightly grasping this opportunity by scrapping the disastrous Common Agricultural Policy. The new payment schemes will reward farmers for restoring soils, improving management of fertilisers, and recovering farmland wildlife while producing food.
This week the government confirmed that the first scheme will launch in June and will support farmers to use alternatives to expensive chemical fertilisers to help alleviate rising costs. This includes sowing plants and crops that provide a natural source of nitrogen for the soil.
Over the longer term, the scheme will encourage farmers to shift to practices that boost soil fertility, like planting cover crops over winter and minimising soil disturbance by heavy machinery. This can cut the need for expensive fertilisers, which cost farmers more than £1 billion in 2020.
This will also secure the UK’s food security in the long term. As a recent government report highlighted, environmental pressures like climate change, soil degradation, and plunging bee numbers are the gravest risk to the future of British farming. Sustainable farming will help reverse the decline of nature and tackle climate change by storing carbon. It’s a win-win.
Secondly, the government should support new technologies which provide farmers with an alternative to grain and fossil fuels. Hydrogen and electric batteries could all play a role in decarbonising farm vehicles. New types of animal feed from insects also offer an opportunity to raise livestock more efficiently. The tranche of funding made available this week to support sustainable farming innovations should prioritise these technologies and in future farmers should be given grants to pilot them on their farms.
Sending a strong signal through the government’s forthcoming food strategy will also unlock private investment in new technologies like cellular meat and vertical farming, and ministers should take forward Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation to establish a food innovation cluster. In the future, this could help lower food prices by allowing us to grow more fruit, vegetables and meat using cheaper, domestic clean energy.
Thirdly, we should limit bioenergy in the future to keep land for food production. In 2019, 1.6 per cent of productive farmland in the UK was used to grow crops for bioenergy. If we were to burn more biomass for electricity, it would take up more land – especially if we grew more of the wood and fibres at home instead of importing them.
Finally, the UK wastes 9.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. On average, this costs families £700. Tackling this problem will reduce the pressure on food supplies and save people money. That’s why the government should require food businesses to report on their waste, fix our broken “best before” labelling system, and launch a public information campaign to encourage people to waste less.
For too long, we have fed Britain by depleting our natural resources and relying on expensive imported chemicals. And many farmers have struggled to make ends meet. The Ukraine crisis shows the risks involved with our current farming methods. With complete control of our agricultural policy outside the EU, we can change course and marry new technologies with better environmental stewardship. This would strengthen our food security and reduce our exposure to global shocks, helping farmers thrive and keeping food bills low.