WHAT’S IT going to take for the Scottish and UK governments to wake up and smell the coffee over the fragility of our nation’s food supply chains?

The cracks have been showing for months, with labour shortages within many key food supply roles, but these have been allowed to erupt into what are now full-scale challenges, with food shortages already being witnessed UK-wide.

Only last week, the news broke that one of the UK’s top milk processors Arla, wasn’t able to supply milk to 600 of its stores due to lorry driver shortages.

As I skimmed the headlines of the major news outlets, many journalists rightly voiced concern but also their surprise at the situation. But this is not new news, in fact industry leaders and food and farming journalists like myself have been warning of impending food shortages for many months, but very little action has been taken by government to deliver swift and effective action to prevent it.

More than 100,000 pigs were backed up on farm in the early months of 2021, due to a shortage of abattoir workers, adding significant cost implications for farmers who were left picking up the tab for a higher feed bill. They were then hit with the double whammy of a penalty for their pigs growing out of carcase specification.

Labour shortages are causing disruptions up and down the food supply chain and are not just a short-term issue resulting from workers having to self-isolate due to contact tracing. Post-Brexit, European workers - who mostly fill these roles - aren’t there or have moved on to other roles such as hospitality as it begins to reopen.

I’m told regularly by both farmers and industry organisations that government is aware of the severity of the problem but appears unwilling to act. There are approximately 1.5 million furloughed workers, some of whom may be suitable for employment in the food sector, why aren’t they being encouraged to respond to the crisis that is unfolding?

It was only in the last two weeks did both government’s exempt critical workers in the food and drink sector from having to isolate after contract tracing. The ‘Pingdemic’ as it has been aptly named, has been crippling Scotland’s food and drink sector for months on end, but it would appear that it takes visibly empty shelves in our supermarkets to spur policy makers into action.

UK Defra secretary George Eustice recently applauded food and drinks businesses for being the hidden heroes of the pandemic – the operative word being ‘hidden.’ Food security mattered during lockdown when the public got behind local food producers but is it already fading into insignificance within government priorities.

How far removed do our policy makers have to be from food production to not have a basic understanding that the farm to fork process has several cogs in its wheel and if any one of these cogs is allowed to break, then the wheel will collapse?

Last week, a survey by The National Craft Butchers revealed that two-thirds of small abattoirs in the UK plan to close their doors within the next five years, if the government doesn’t do something fast.

But without small abattoirs we simply can’t accommodate our government’s loudly and proudly publicised vision of thriving local food economies. The stats got graver still, with a quarter of small abattoirs saying they would be gone within the year, painting a very worrying picture of the future of local meat supply.

READ MORE: The SNP has a Europe problem that will come back to haunt Sturgeon

It would seem that small, family-run businesses, who are perfectly placed to tick our nations vision of locally sourced, traceable, low carbon, high welfare meat are the ones being villainised by the government’s archaic inspection system and increasingly burdensome rule book.

I spoke to an award-winning butcher and abattoir owner in Machynlleth, Mid Wales, who this week is closing his business, after three generations of his family have served the local farming and crofting communities for over 70 years. He told me that in the 80’s, his abattoir provided meat for six butchers in the area, but he has been the last man standing for many years after the supermarkets pushed local butchers and other small businesses out, as everything became more centralised.

He has devoted his life to his trade, receiving an MBE from the Queen for services to the meat industry 20 years ago, but he has been left devastated in recent years by the way his business and staff have been treated by regulation bodies, so much so that he stressed that he would never allow his kids to take over the reins.

He recalled a recent inspection of his abattoir where the inspector openly criticised his staff and left him feeling like he was running a dirty business.

It is ludicrous that we have a system in place which is actively trying to undermine and vilify small family-run businesses, creating a culture of fear which is driving the small players to the brink as the bigger players get a larger chunk of the market to play with.

Is it not much more sensible, ethical and environmentally friendly to be protecting our smaller food supply chains which have many less cogs in the chain than gearing policy in the favour of big business?

Yes, big food businesses are also feeling the pinch, but they have much larger profit margins to play with, making them more resilient to shocks.

It is time for policy makers to decide if they want small food businesses to be the backbone of future UK food production or if the demise of local, family-run businesses will be their great food legacy.