It is no secret that the coalition government has inherited some big challenges. One of them might not be making the headlines with problems like the national deficit, but is potentially just as important – will we be able to keep our population adequately fed in decades to come?
This question concerned the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) enough under the previous government to inspire a major policy document published in January this year. The Food 2030 report offers a road map for how the UK can cope with growing volatility in global supply chains to ensure a safe and sustainable supply of food for generations to come. It ensured the phrase ‘food security’ is now firmly embedded in the UK’s political lexicon.
How serious is the issue? Soaring global population, climate change, fuel shortages and rapid clearance of land to make way for urban development are all putting such strain on food production and trade that some experts are soberly predicting
severe food shortages within the next decade. The UK currently imports around40 per cent of its food, plus considerable volumes of animal feed and generic ingredients such as soya and oils. In that context, the UK’s exposure to global volatility has to be taken seriously.
However, as a developed nation with a mature food and drink industry, the UK is in a strong position to plan for and meet these challenges. The Food 2030 report argues for a more rationalised, integrated, clean, green, efficient and self-reliant domestic industry, which uses innovation and science to achieve maximum output from resources available, minimise waste and cut all fat possible from often lengthy and complex supply chains.
The flipside of is that we still need food production to be viable as an enterprise. It is not just about getting food in people’s mouths – the food supply chain is worth 11£155 billion a year to the UK economy, and employs around 3.2 million people. Without resorting to subsidies from the public coffers, creating a secure and sustainable supply chain must be driven by private businesses, which can make it profitable.
One of Improve’s mandates when it was set up in 2004 was to drive improvements in productivity and efficiency in the food and drink industry. There is a simple argument as to why improving skills can achieve this – the better and smarter your employees work, the better your company’s output. The same argument applies to food security. If we want to cut waste, maximise output, reduce impact on the environment and keep costs down so products remain affordable and businesses profitable, we need to work in smarter, more sophisticated ways. We need to harness science and technology to their full potential, we need innovative leaders who can manage effective change, and we need a world class workforce with the skills and the drive to deliver.
The Food 2030 report does recognise the importance that skills, knowledge, research and technology will play in achieving its goals. However, the focus is heavily on agriculture and primary production, ignoring the fact that the food supply chain also includes the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, a multi-billion pound retail industry and a myriad of related operations such as logistics, packaging
I have always been concerned by the farm-focused view of the food industry traditionally taken by government, but on an issue as important as food security, it is fundamentally flawed. If we only address efficiency, productivity and sustainability right at the start of the supply chain, the likelihood is that all the gains will have been negated by the time the product reaches the consumer.
Along with colleagues from partner sector skills councils covering agriculture and food retail, Improve has been involved in a direct dialogue with Defra trying to push home this very point. Our shared goal is to press the coalition government to adopt common, integrated policies for the whole food and drink supply chain on all issues, not just food security.
We believe this is particularly crucial when it comes to training because many of the core skills relevant to food and drink – food science and technology, production and logistical planning, management, marketing – are relevant throughout the supply chain. The benefits of improving skills in these areas will be cumulative throughout the supply chain. Whilst Defra officials have spoken positively, to date there has been no real action to move this forward.
The sector skills councils already have much of the infrastructure and materials for delivering a food-security-based skills agenda in place. Working with food and drink manufacturing companies, Improve has already mapped out National Occupational Standards (NOS) in sustainability, which define an agreed benchmark for the knowledge and skills required to work in more sustainable ways. These standards are being used to develop units, which will be embedded within the new Improve Proficiency Qualifications (IPQs). These are designed to offer a flexible choice of content aimed at specific industries and operations within the sector. The inclusion of generic units in areas like sustainability means a common understanding and purpose can be shared across the board, even via training intended to deliver specialised skills to meet specific business needs.
Improve’s partner organisation, the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing, works directly with employers on developing and delivering bespoke training programmes via a network of specialist training providers. We already have networks established in several key areas relevant to food security – lean manufacturing, logistics, leadership and management, engineering and maintenance, robotics and automation. That gives us an infrastructure of expertise to work with individual companies on training in areas like cutting waste and improving efficiency in process management, introducing and maintaining more sophisticated, hi-tech operating systems, and developing leaders who can manage effective change.
Food security offers both a challenge and an opportunity to our industry. Creating a more efficient and sustainable supply chain will also create businesses with better long-term prospects and add even greater value to the UK economy by setting the trend for how to handle what is a global issue. The closer we can align operations by training people to have a general understanding of their role within the supply chain, the more we adopt a common currency of best practice, the better we can make the supply chain work, the greater the rewards and security we will all have to share. u
Jack Matthews is chief executive of Improve, the food and drink sector skills council. Improve is part of the network of sector skills councils established by the government to take the lead in driving up skills in the workplace in order to promote higher productivity and stronger competitiveness for UK businesses in the global market. Funded primarily by the government, sector skills councils are also supported by employers whose needs they represent when stimulating change among the providers of education and skills.
For further information, visit: www.improve-skills.co.uk