Prime Minister revealed a series of measures to support food production at the NFU Conference

Rishi Sunak addressed the 2024 NFU Conference

Rishi Sunak addressed the 2024 NFU Conference

Image: Jonathan Hipkiss / Exposure Photos

The UK will launch a new annual Food Security Index to monitor the nation’s self-sufficiency in food production, the Prime Minister has announced.

Addressing the NFU Conference in Birmingham on 20 February, Rishi Sunak said the UK-wide Food Security Index comes following three years of instability where challenges ranged from the Ukraine war to input cost pressure and a cost-of-living crisis.

The index will capture and present the key data needed to monitor how the UK is maintaining its current levels of food security across the country.

“We’re strengthening support for your [farmers’] primary role to produce the nation’s food, which is a vital part of our national security,” Sunak said. “In an age of climate change and instability, global food production will become increasingly volatile, so it’s important to strengthen food security here at home.

“So today I can announce that we’ll step up our monitoring with a new annual Food Security Index, which we’ll make statutory when parliament has the time. We’ll publish the first draft at the Farm to Fork Summit this spring, and I’m also delighted to say that those summits will become an annual event.”

Outgoing NFU president Minette Batters described the announcement as “significant”, stressing that farmers viewed annual reporting as essential rather than three or five-yearly updates.

“The good thing about annual reporting is that if we are slipping, we can do something about it,” she said. “There are some things that we must remain totally self-sufficient in, and some things that we need to be growing much more frequently – vegetables being the classic case in point.

“So measuring it annually – and I hope all parties will commit to hosting a domestic food security summit every year – allows us to amend the situation if there’s a problem. Until now there’s been no way of holding anybody to account [on food self-sufficiency], so annual assessments will be critical to all of this.”

Rural support measures

Elsewhere in his speech, Sunak announced a package of support for rural communities, stating that the government will back food production through the largest-ever grant offer for farmers in the coming year, expected to total £427m. Funding for technology and productivity is central to the offer.

Sunak emphasised on a number of occasions that the government is committed to spending “every penny” of the £2.4bn annual farming budget for England, though Batters challenged him on the figure, asserting that an independent report argued the industry needed £4.5bn to meet its environmental commitments.

Around £220m – up from £91m last year – will be injected into the future-focused technology and productivity schemes to ensure farmers can access new equipment, including kit which increases automation to reduce reliance on overseas workers. It will also fund cost-saving energy measures, such as rooftop solar.

The government also said that in the spring it will double the management payments for the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, putting up to an extra £1,000 in farmers’ pockets. More than 11,000 farmers already in the schemes will be eligible for the payments, which help farmers and producers to improve soil health, optimise fertiliser, protect waterways and enhance and preserve hedgerows.

It will be further extended in July, opening up to the Countryside Stewardship mid-tier, ensuring “there is a single front door to make the application process easier”.

’Biggest change in a generation’

“While the importance of farmers will never change, farming is going through its biggest change in a generation,” Sunak told the conference. “And as farmers do so, this government will be by their side.

“Farmers are also at the forefront of innovation – from gene editing to boost resilience to disease, to automation to help harvest crops. And while thanks to you we enjoy good-quality food all year-round, global events – including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have put food security back at the top of the agenda. We’ll never take our food security for granted. We’ve got a plan to support British farming, and we’re going further again today.”

In a further announcement, Sunak promised to cut bureaucratic red tape around permitted development rights so farmers can easily develop buildings and diversify earnings.