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Why egg shortages expose cracks in the way UK farmers are treated


Three eggs in a box

Supermarkets are rationing boxes of eggs as poultry farmers face the double blow of bird flu and rising feed prices, while the National Farmers' Union has called for a Defra investigation into the supply chain. 

Dr Kamran Mahroof, Associate Professor of Supply Chain Analytics at the University of Bradford, explains why this current shortage is down to deeper cracks in how our farmers are supported - and why we must fix them or risk losing a vital part of our economy. 

He said: “Avian flu has caused the current egg shortage and we’ll get through it, just as we have got through other catastrophes, but we can’t continue papering over the cracks when it comes to the UK’s farming sector.

"Farmers are often criticised for not doing more, but they’ve been hit with problem after problem, without the time and resources necessary to bounce back. Instead of focusing on this latest crisis, it’s about time we look at the future impact that will leave and the people involved in that sector.

"Farmers were already struggling because the war in Ukraine has cut off a lot of the world’s wheat and corn, which they buy as livestock feed, resulting in prices soaring. Traditionally, profit margins have been wafer-thin and forking out higher prices for feed means farmers are spending more per egg than before. While consumers might be paying more for a box of a dozen eggs at the supermarket, that extra money isn’t necessarily going back to the farmers.

Headshot of Dr Kamran Mahroof

Pictured above: Dr Kamran Mahroof

"Their profits are shrinking to an extent that the future of farming in this country is becoming unsustainable, and that should worry us all.

"It’s similar to what has been happening in the HGV sector. Last year, we suddenly became aware of how important HGV drivers are in our economy when we suffered mass shortages. McDonald’s couldn’t make milkshakes, Nando’s struggled to get chicken. Covid-19 and Brexit contributed, but there was no escaping the fact we simply hadn’t looked after our lorry drivers.

"If we don’t support the elements of our economy that we rely on, supply disruption will continue to dominate our news bulletins and headlines. Whenever there is disruption, it’s often due to multiple - not necessarily just one - contributing factors.

"This is not just about bird flu - the USA suffered a similar experience with bird flu earlier in the year, but with fewer uncertainties and infrastructural challenges are experiencing a better recovery.

"We need to be proactive. We need to plan ahead and prepare so that when these so-called ‘black swan events’ happen - rare, high impact occurrences such as avian flu  - we can cope.

Low margins, high uncertainty

"On the one hand, we are talking about ‘buying local’ and reducing our food miles to lower our carbon footprints, yet on the other hand, we are not giving enough support to our ‘local’ farmers and food suppliers who play a pivotal role in this.

"From my own research, I know farmers feel left out of the conversation.

"They are already being incentivised to stop rearing livestock and give up their land to plant trees and help the environment. In a cost-of-living crisis, with livestock feed and energy bills going up and customers who might not be able to afford to pay higher prices for their food, the big players will be able to navigate through the fog, but how can we expect smaller farmers to continue operating on low margins and high uncertainty?

"It’s a stressful job which relies on a seasonal income and it's time we spoke about the issue of poor mental health faced within the farming industry. Operating on small margins isn't healthy,  the coronavirus pandemic wouldn't have helped, and the ongoing challenges are pushing farmers to the brink.  We know farmers suffer a lot of mental health problems and there is a high suicide rate in the sector - it's time we factor these issues in when considering the level of support that really should be on offer.

"Add all those factors together and it’s hardly an appealing career.

A chicken and two eggs

"Traditionally, farming is a vocation which passes down through generations. We need to look at how to attract younger people into farming too. They will be the ones with greater digital skills who can make changes to help the industry adapt in the future.

From a supply chain perspective, we have to make adjustments, such as more subsidies and support, to ensure farmers can continue to operate. Unfortunately, the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs) which was designed to replace EU payments, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-Brexit has not been the success one would have hoped for. The scheme pays farmers for delivering a range of ‘public goods’ such as environmental benefits, but since its launch has been largely viewed with scepticism and uncertainty by the farming community.

"We have brought in price caps for energy. Shouldn’t we be looking at doing something similar for farming? We knew eight months ago, following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, that there would be more pressure on farmers and that if some major catastrophe happened, we would be staring down the barrel of another shortage crisis. Why are we not using modelling to plan ahead so we have contingencies in place?

"Farmers are resilient but we need systemic change in the industry to protect them and the future of farming in this country -  because we can’t afford to lose it.”