Food, glorious food

A rare parade of big numbers was on the march on Monday, at the launch of the Leading Food 4.0 report from the National Centre for Universities and Business. They were almost striking enough to distract me from the astounding view from Altitude, the 29th floor restaurant at Millbank Tower on the Thames.
It’s impossible not to like the NCUB. It has a simple mission that’s hard to get right – making universities and businesses work together better. I have been an editor and writer on various of their projects over time, including Food 4.0, and enjoy it enormously.
This time NCUB put its head into the lion’s mouth by taking on the problems of an industry that in some ways does not even exist. Right now, there is not one food industry but many, including over 200,000 businesses. NCUB characterises this as the Food Economy, a term that deserves wider use. Here come the big numbers: UK food and drink spending £196 billion: 3.7 million jobs: £19 billion of exports. But someone who owns a farm probably does not think that they work in the same industry as a baker or a shop worker. Many of the firms are too small for much planning or introspection, and are driven by keeping demanding customers happy. Even the trade association are a mess – over 40 for different types of food product, let alone anything else.
This means that the industry has some big systemic problems. Students don’t want to go into food jobs, even though there are plenty of great careers there. The environment gets damaged by small-scale thinking. Innovation is slowed by poor understanding between industry and academe – not that many other parts of the UK economy have got that one right. Meanwhile agriculture alone loses 10,000 people a year by retirement. This is damaging for such a labour-intensive business – 1 per cent of the economy, 2 per cent of the workforce. But in the era of climate change, big data, robotics and all the rest, it’s even more of a problem if bright young people aren’t aware of food as a career option.
The report is full of ambitious ideas to improve things across a broad front, including the creation of a new profession of landscape negotiators who would make the diverse users of big land areas see the sense in joint working.
The group that led the charge was fronted by former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King and Quintin McKellar, vice chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, neither of them people who want to write a report that will look great on the shelf. Can the road ahead they set out actually be traveled? Maybe. After all, everyone thought a few years ago that the UK car industry was dying, and now it’s a massive success and a magnet for graduates.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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