A new initiative exploring ways for agriculture and hospitality to work more closely together could ease retail’s dominance of the food supply chain, Peter Martin argues

When it comes to food production in the UK, retail calls the shots. Hospitality rarely gets a look in on issues shaping the market – although there’s now a chance that might be about to change.

The onerous nature of contracts placed on farmers and growers by the big supermarket chains is the story that often hits the headlines, but many argue that the bigger problem is the whole structure of the agriculture and horticulture sector focused as it is almost exclusively on retail’s needs.

And the result, as the boss of one specialist wholesaler serving the out-of-home market told me, is that retail’s pressure on margins have, in too many cases, held back badly needed investment and modernisation in domestic production.

Critics argue that a lack of real support from the supermarkets for UK food producers has left many lagging behind European competitors, meaning in turn that they still pays wholesalers to source from across the Channel, especially for fruit and vegetables, even with extra post-Brexit journey times built in.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that there is a growing number among the farming community that would like to see the retailers’ dominance of the market eased – and a new initiative to explore ways for agriculture and hospitality to work more closely together could be seen as part of that process.

This month saw the inaugural meeting of the Food, Farming & Hospitality round table chaired by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Minette Batters, who underlined the logic of the gathering by pointing out that in value terms hospitality already accounts for a hefty slice of the food market.

Representatives from the NFU, UKHospitality and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts were joined by executives from leading pub, restaurant and hotel businesses, including Greene King, Hawksmoor and Pig Hotels, to discuss a range of common issues. Food security and sustainability were to the fore, along with how to develop a joint approach to government on challenges such as labour shortages.

Conversations were underpinned by a new report produced for the NFU by CGA by NIQ, ‘Food, Farming and Hospitality: Why the British story matters’, focusing on consumer attitudes to British produced food in the out-of-home market, including how local sourcing is seen as an important indicator by the public of a pub or restaurant’s green commitment.

And yes, I was there too as a long-term champion of improving links between the out-of-home market and the agriculture and horticulture community. The round table is an important first step in improving communication and understanding of each other’s needs and challenges and there is plenty to work on.

Getting hospitality businesses to buy more British food is the underlying aim, and the evidence is that customers would like to see more home-grown produce on menus. But to be really effective the coming together of the two sectors needs to be more than just a flag-waving endeavour.

As Minette Batters said: “Developing relationships between the out-of-home sector and British farmers and growers will create even more opportunities to serve up local food that is safe and fully traceable, providing the provenance the public increasingly appreciates – as well as helping to strengthen our domestic food security.”

That is not to say there aren’t challenges. It is always going to be easier for smaller local pubs, restaurants and hotels to engage with their local farmers to supply them. The big problems for chains are availability, consistency and reliability of supply – as is often said: “Chefs can’t cook a credit note.”

But as the NFU’s report highlights, if the likes of Hawksmoor, with its direct line to its beef producer, or even one of our biggest operators, McDonald’s, can engage effectively, why can’t others? Even allowing GMs or chefs some discretion to source a portion of their menu from local growers and farmers might be a start.

At the heart of this fledgling farm-to-fork conversation lies the whole issue of the food supply chain’s efficiency and effectiveness, now and into the future, from what to produce to carbon targets to technology and automation. And there’s always the government’s role, especially in providing data for farmers on sustainability. If you think hospitality is regulated, try agriculture.

This initiative really does have the potential to start to change things for both sides’ benefit and there’s no obvious downside. So why not lend your voice and get around the table with those friendly farmers?