A bit of number crunching paints a positive picture for UK ag

According to the latest edition of Agriculture in the UK (the annual DEFRA publication detailing statistics on our industry) food inflation last year was 5.5%, compared with 4.5% for the general economy. This was a reversal of the long-term trend. Food has traditionally increased in price at a lower rate than general consumer goods, contributing to the squeeze in farmgate values and, as was reported last week, has recently slowed to return closer to its usual relative level.

There were, of course, a variety of well-documented reasons for the turnaround last year, including the recession and the extended drought. Indeed, for those reasons, together with unemployment, the credit squeeze and general lack of confidence in the economy, overall consumer expenditure on food was 2.5% lower last year than in 2010 and had fallen by 8.6% since 2007.

And yet, surveys conducted by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) and the NFU, to name but two last year, consistently revealed more consumers favoured UK agriculture than had done for many years. On the face of it this is a contradiction, especially in view of the pressing need for most to be more cost conscious and make their pounds go further. So why do they appreciate us more, despite paying extra for what we produce?

Let’s not be too modest. Farmers’ own efforts have helped. The NFU with its Farming Matters campaign, FACE with its ongoing activities with schools and LEAF with its Open Farm Sundays, and others, have all contributed to better understanding between us and our customers. The message that home-grown is freshest and probably safest is getting through.

But we can’t take all the credit. The supermarkets too have been preaching the same message, not least because in many cases it’s cheaper for them to buy from this country than abroad. In the days when the pound was strong, they could bring stuff in cheaply from overseas. Now our currency is weaker it takes more pounds to buy the same goods. So, home-grown suits their bottom lines and their PR departments predictably promote the benefits to customers – the fewer miles goods travel before they reach the shelves, carbon emissions saved and so on. Just for once, supermarket and grower interests coincide.

There are many other interesting statistics in the current edition of Agriculture in the UK. Let me share a few more with you. UK food self-sufficiency for those commodities we can grow in our climate increased from 75.1% in 2010 to 77.7% last year, so more good news there, especially when you remember the figure for 2007 was only 73.1%. Our self-sufficiency for all foods also improved from 60% in 2007 to 62.9% in 2011. They may only be small incremental increases, but they suggest the long-term decline in self-sufficiency experienced previously might have begun to turn around.

The other figures I always find illuminating are the proportion of average household income spent on food and drink. In 2011, the figure was 9.3% for food consumed at home – the same as the previous year. Food eaten out accounted for just 5.0% of average income, a drop of 0.3% on the previous year and a reflection, perhaps, of some belt tightening. The percentage of income spent on alcoholic drinks, however, went up, from 4.6% in 2010 to 4.8% in 2011. But I’d better not be too critical. There were plenty of reasons for drowning sorrows that may account for the increase.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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