Food security, accessibility, and sustainability should be categorised as a public good says new report by the Lifelong Education Institute
The Lifelong Education Institute’s latest report ‘Hungry to Learn: Lifelong Learning Pathways for the Agri-food Sector’ raises concerns over the neglected potential of the agri-food sector in the UK, and especially around the gap between its skills requirements and the available skills provision by agri-food education institutions.
The report states that the agri-food sector faces immense pressure to help the UK meet national-level policy targets around sustainability and accessibility, but Government and Innovate UK do not offer consistent, sector-wide, support and skills investment. These are needed to foster innovation growth, and to also address unresolved strategic questions about workforce training priorities.
The report recommends to Government to categorise food security, accessibility, and sustainability as a public good, and to give the agri-food sector the status of a strategic industry, which will help unlock funds and change its approach to employment and skills development.
Part of that change in approach is the introduction of a system of Lifelong Learning Pathways as the primary framework for skills and career progression in agri-food, and its expansion to all UK strategic industry sectors and employment areas.
These should be funded by expanding the Lifelong Learning Entitlement into a Pathway Premium combined tuition and maintenance grant, set at the equivalent of six years’ worth of full-time post-16 education (currently £55,500 p.a.) and living costs.
Complementing this framework, the report recommends tax incentives to motivate employers to invest more in skills development. These include:
A new ‘strategic innovation rate’ for SME R&D tax relief.
A ‘strategic innovation credit’ band for R&D expenditure credit.
Adding a ‘strategic innovation multiplier’ to the Annual Investment Allowance.
Introducing a ‘strategic skills tax credit’ at a rising rate proportional to the number of industry placements and employees undertaking ‘on the job’ training and upskilling.
The report also recommends folding all local skills funding pots into the Local Skills Improvement Fund, with a mandatory new agri-food funding and strategy strand, and converting the Rural England Prosperity Fund into a ‘Breadbasket of England’ strategic fund to support innovation, knowledge exchange, and training in key agri-food growth regions.
George Eustice MP, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs said:
“During the pandemic, we soon learnt which jobs were truly important, and all those working in the food industry became key workers. Linked to this, more work is needed to bring consistency and credibility to the system of qualifications. Multiple changes over the decades have undermined perceptions about the credibility of some qualifications. Hungry to Learn makes many policy recommendations which are a powerful contribution to the debate. There has never been a time where our food system and the importance of domestic output to our national security has attracted such attention, and it is important to ensure that this translates into concrete progress.”
Dr Marius Ostrowski, report author and Executive Director of the Lifelong Education Institute, said:
"The UK today faces vast strategic threats: climate change, global conflict, a fragmenting global market, and a cost-of-living crisis. To overcome these threats, it needs an economy founded on sustainability and resilience, and it has to protect and nurture its strategic resources. The agri-food sector holds the key to putting the UK economy on a secure and stable footing. But it cannot do so without major investment in the skills that underpin its future productivity. Government and business need to work with education providers to build a bottom-to-top system of agri-food training, upskilling, and career progression fit for the 21st century. This report sows the seeds of a renaissance in UK agri-food. It is up to policymakers to determine if its recommendations find fertile ground."
Prof. Ken Sloan, Vice Chancellor of Harper Adams University, said:
“This report for the Lifelong Learning Institute makes an important contribution on how we might achieve an uplift in skills, innovation and efficiency across the workforce of those employed by and contributing to the food and farming sectors. Harper Adams University is the UK’s premier specialist institution for food production and technology, animal health and wellbeing, and their contribution to sustainable, living environments for our planet’s inhabitants. Being able to feed all of our population, in as equitable way as possible, with nutritious, sustainably produced food, is of the utmost importance both in the UK and around world. 99.2% of our students take up employment within the sectors we serve, with alumni from Harper Adams accounting for 25% of graduate positions within UK food and farming. This is a strong basis on which to help shape the provision of life long skills acquisition and development across these sectors and “Hungry To Learn” provides some tangible recommendations to help shape this critical sector for the better. With the founding partners of the School of Sustainable Food and Farming, I am delighted that Harper Adams University has been able to contribute to this study and would like to thank both ResPublica and the Lifelong Education Institute for shining a light on this issue at the current time.”
Notes to editors
The report will be officially launched on Tuesday 3 October at 09:00 at a panel event during Conservative Party Conference 2023 in Manchester.
The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries
David Exwood, Vice President, NFU
Prof. Michael Lee, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Harper Adams University
Dr Marius Ostrowski, Executive Director, Lifelong Education Institute (Report Author)
This report was kindly supported by Harper Adams University and The School of Sustainable Food and Farming.
UK agri-food has shifted its emphasis ‘downstream’, away from primary agriculture and towards food wholesaling, food retail, and non-residential catering. Between 1990 and 2022, UK agriculture grew from £8bn to £18.6bn (an 131% increase), food and beverage manufacturing from £18.8bn to £33.1bn (76% increase), wholesale and retail including food and drink from £62.2bn to £206.7bn (232% increase), and food and beverage services from £11bn to £52.7bn (382% increase).
This is much lower than other flagship sectors of the UK economy, such as IT (1,140% growth), sports and recreation (632% growth), accommodation (578% growth), and legal and accounting (573% growth), but ahead of several others, including chemicals (36% growth), textile (43% growth), metals (73% growth), and electrical manufacturing (75% growth).
UK agriculture has become less concentrated and more evenly dispersed. The historical primary agricultural regions of the East Midlands and the East of England have been overtaken by the South West in the last two decades, and are being challenged by strong growth in the South East and West Midlands.
UK agriculture is becoming more diversified, moving away from cereal farming and towards dairy, poultry, fruit, and plants and flowers.
Agri-food lacks the technical skills provision to meet its recruitment needs. In 2022–23, out of 105,600 total apprenticeships achieved in England, only 2,330 (2.2%) were in agriculture, horticulture, or animal care. These were heavily concentrated in the South East and South West, with an undersupply of agri-food apprentices in several major agri-food regions.
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