Just a week after the publication of a government’s report on UK food security, the record cold snap brought the fragility of the UK’s high-tech food system into sharp focus.
By Friday, as the ice continued its rapid thaw, it was clear that the system had held — just — but the cracks bad weather could cause had been exposed and the disputes about whether the powerful retailers or the farmers at the bottom of the chain should pick up the bill were beginning.
About 80 percent of all supermarket supplies of carrots, for example, now come from just 10 major packers in East Anglia, Scotland and the north of England. At this time of year, more than half the carrots the UK eats have to make their way from northeast Scotland (where the fields over the past fortnight have been frozen) to centralized distribution depots and back out again to stores.
The UK’s milk supply has become concentrated, too: 60 percent of the fresh milk consumed in the UK has to travel from farms around the country to six locations for processing before being trucked back hundreds of kilometers up and down icy motorways to customers.
In Invernessshire, Scotland, this week, one of the largest suppliers of organic carrots to the big retailers, Tio Ltd, battled to get each day’s supermarket orders out “by the skin of our teeth,” senior manager Stephen Ryan said.
“We’ve managed to get all the deliveries to the depots, though some have been running hours late. There’s not as much slack in the system as there used to be, especially from Scotland, because the distances things have to travel are so big,” Ryan said.
The thaw promises to bring just as many problems with harvesting as fields become waterlogged.
In East Anglia, growers have also had to throw labor at the problems to keep up.
Sarah Pettitt, chair of the National Farmers’ Union board of horticultural growers, estimates that her brassica company has seen a 100 percent increase in its costs in the cold weather, like most other vegetable growers she knows.
She said there was “absolute frustration” among producers that the costs of keeping supply lines going were not being shared by supermarkets, which set prices up to a year in advance.
For the dairy sector, which has seen many farmers giving up their herds in the face of persistently low supermarket prices, losses resulting from the weather have been a particularly hard blow.
Nick Tyler, a large-scale dairy farmer with 600 cows in Wiltshire, in the west of England, lost £11,000 (US$18,000) worth of milk last week when the processor’s tanker failed to turn up and he was forced to throw it away.
The structure of today’s milk industry has made it more vulnerable to bad weather. The milk travels further to fewer, larger processors, which use larger lorries less able to cope with even a slight deterioration in weather.
Sir Don Curry, formerly the government’s top adviser on sustainable farming and now the chair of the Better Regulation Executive, hopes the strain a couple of weeks of cold weather can inflict on the UK food supply system will give greater urgency to calls to make it more sustainable.
“Most retailers have adopted a just-in-time supply chain, so there is not a lot of slack,” he said.
“They allow for some variation, but three to four weeks of difficult weather, and suddenly supplies are under threat. That ought to be an early warning for government and the industry. Disruptions to supply are a serious risk and they need to build a cushion,” he said.
This week the government finally announced its delayed decision to set up an ombudsman to tackle abuses of power in the supermarket chain. However, the structure and scope of the new ombudsman’s office are to be the subject of further consultation.
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