Food and CO2 crisis hasn't been solved – this is just a sticking plaster

BRITISH supermarkets seem to lurch from one crisis to another these days: Covid, the pingdemic, HGV driver shortages and now a critical national shortage of carbon dioxide.

Thankfully, the Government has acted quickly to secure the UK’s food supplies by subsidising the American firm that makes more than half of our CO2 to ensure the continued production of this vital gas.

I realise that a self-proclaimed environmentalist like me arguing for more carbon dioxide might sound ironic. So why does it matter to the food industry?

Carbon dioxide is critical for the stunning and slaughtering of animals, and therefore to the continued supply of fresh meat.

It is also used in packaging to prolong the shelf life of salads and other fresh food, including some bakery products; in the production of carbonated soft drinks and beer; and in a variety of other food manufacturing processes.

But 60 per cent of the UK’s supply was turned off overnight because CF Industries, the US-owned company that makes it as a by-product of fertil­iser manufacture, considers it uneconomic to keep its two British factories, in Teesside and Cheshire, working because of soaring natural gas prices.

It seems extraordinary even to me, as a committed capitalist and free marketeer, that something so vital to national food security should be subject to the whims of a foreign owner rather than Government control.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said he aims to reach a deal with CF Industries to pay it to keep its fertiliser factories open.

That is good news but it is only a short-term solution, a sticking plaster fix.

We must find a permanent solution to keep the UK’s wheels turning and its lights on RIGHT NOW. Or many supermarkets will have major difficulties in keeping their shelves stocked in the days and weeks ahead, never mind as far off as late December.

It may be tempting for the Government to conclude that industry leaders such as me are simply crying wolf when we warn that Christmas could be cancelled for the second year in a row.

We need to be able to rely on our own supplies of heating gas and CO2 so we are no longer at the mercy of foreign-owned suppliers.

Defra, the responsible Government department, says it is working closely with the food industry to resolve the issues, though we at Iceland certainly haven’t heard anything from it.

But perhaps it is prioritising commun­ication with the meat industry, whose needs are the most urgent. Do you, as a consumer, need to worry?

Not in the sense of rushing out to stock up on food and drink, no. There is absolutely no need for panic buying of anything.

At Iceland, we are fortunate to specialise in frozen food with a long shelf-life, and we are building up additional stocks of lines such as meat in case of interruptions to fresh supply.

The CO2 shortage will impact principally on the production and packaging of chilled food lines, not on frozen food.

We also don’t rely on “dry ice” for refrigeration, so the reported disruption to deliveries by other retailers, as a knock-on effect of the CO2 shortage, is not an issue for us.

We are very confident we can continue to meet the needs of our customers for frozen food, for which customers can continue to shop normally — but it may not be as happy a story elsewhere.

We know that some consumers are already planning ahead for Christmas and using frozen food to do this. We saw an increase of 409 per cent for sales of our frozen turkey last week.

We are very confident we can continue to meet the needs of our customers for frozen food, for which customers can continue to shop normally — but it may not be as happy a story elsewhere.

The British Poultry Council has predicted fresh turkey production will be down by 20 per cent this year.

We have seen spikes in searches for Christmas products on our website since July, following reports of the HGV crisis, potential fresh meat shortages and the CO2 shortages.

In fact, we have already launched a Christmas section of the website in response to this.

But no amount of advance planning alters the fact that the Government really does need to get a grip and prioritise supplies of CO2 for food production if we are to avoid the real risk of serious gaps in the fresh and chilled food and drinks sections of the nation’s supermarkets in the near future.

When I have tweeted about this issue, dedicated Remainers have been very quick to tell me that the CO2 shortage is all down to Brexit and therefore my own fault for the way I voted in the referendum. This is total nonsense.

The underlying issue of soaring natural gas prices is Europe-wide and indeed global, reflecting the uptick in economic activity post-Covid and shortfalls in alternative energy supplies that are being exploited by gas producers.

Where Brexit has had an effect, as I have acknowledged, is in contributing to — though not directly causing — the nationwide shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers that is also putting supply chains under pressure.

My motivation for backing Brexit was to broaden the UK’s horizons globally beyond Europe, to increase trade with the rest of the world and to liberate us from unnecessary EU regulation.

I have always been in favour of controlled immigration. It is beyond ironic that it is the UK Government’s own unnecessary regulation that is preventing us from quickly increasing the supply of HGV drivers from the EU by adding them to the “skilled worker” list, at the same time as efforts are made by the industry to employ more British drivers.

Leaving the EU was the biggest change in the UK’s economic arrangements for half a century; the Covid pandemic was the greatest challenge to our way of life since the Second World War.

It would be naive in the extreme to expect us to weather both of these huge events without some turbulence.


I am sure we can and will overcome these current difficulties, but as we approach the critical COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, it is clear there is an urgent need for the UK to have a credible and robust plan to meet the nation’s future energy needs.

We need a more diverse and greener energy supply based on massive investment in more wind, solar and tidal generation; and we need to put this in place before we hugely increase pressure on the national grid by electrifying our cars, trucks and domestic heating.

We also need to take a proper look at the potential of more innovative zero- carbon technology, such as micro-nuclear plants, to fill the inevitable renewable energy deficit caused by the inconstancy of wind power in particular.

  • Richard Walker is managing director of Iceland Foods. He is on Twitter, @icelandrichard

    Source: Read Full Article