Back to 1945: it’s time to make sure Britain can feed itself again.

Empty Shelves. Photo credit: wikimedia.jpg

Fog in The Channel: Continent Cut Off was a headline in The Times in 1957. This is the stuff of Brexiters’ dreams. But be careful what you wish for: already there are shortages in supermarkets. Worse nightmares could be to come. Back in 2017 I warned in a blog that, just as in 1945, after the privations of war, it was decided Britain must become more self-sufficient in food with a national food strategy, post-Brexit the same need might arise again.

My own background in international food processing gave me some  awareness of how food insecurity might come about, even before the events which have now made it urgent.  Although the UK had quite a strong food manufacturing sector, this had become increasingly absorbed into multi-national ownership. Global operators like Nestle and Unilever pounced on successful innovators to strengthen market positions. Nothing wrong there, you may think, until they decided that consolidation of manufacturing sites was necessary, resulting in even iconic brands like HP Sauce, no longer being produced in this country.

Just-in-time deliveries threatened by a variety of factors

But it was also becoming clear that cross-Channel (and cross Irish Sea) just-in-time deliveries were becoming more common, not only for fruit and veg but even for prepared foods like cheese and meat products. Meanwhile, international traders such as Cargill were controlling commodities like grain or soya, which are not just human staples but the animal feed on which large food sectors depend. So long as there is no interruption to supply lines, these dependencies may not matter but what if there is that metaphorical “fog in the Channel” creating obstacles?

Clearly this would affect the UK as it imports almost half its food already. Other factors which may now affect supply include Brexit, which has gratuitously imposed obstacles and tariffs; Covid, which, with Brexit, has reduced the workforce available for harvesting and processing what we do grow in UK; and the war in Ukraine, which has severely curtailed global supply and hiked prices of staples like white fish, wheat and sunflower oil. Furthermore, climate events may have a disastrous impact on crops and supply chains. Perhaps most catastrophic of all so far is the huge spike in global energy prices, which has been described as the most significant cause of food insecurity in UK.

By the same author

Government must adopt strategies to alleviate food insecurity

Food banks have proliferated as the supermarket shop has become too expensive for tight budgets and the level of social security available to citizens is far below their needs. Some households, even with working adults, are already unable to afford power to cook meals.  Poverty alone can create food insecurity without the external factors.

Has anything been done to alleviate  these risks? Is anything being done to maintain supplies, choice or self-sufficiency? In neither the recent Queen’s Speech nor the Chancellor’s financial statement has food security been mentioned, so it seems fair to assume that in the 5 years of major global disruptions since I advocated a food strategy, none has been created. The announcements by Defra in June in no way constitute strategic thinking but rather highlight its dearth, listing consultations rather than decisions and omitting much of the good work offered by Henry Dimbleby’s recent independent report.

The government has the data but what does it do with it? Government and businesses have to decide: what can be grown or manufactured in this country with the workforce or technology available; what should be import priorities; and how policies might be influenced by health or climate criteria.

Until such a strategy comes into being, with millions of citizens already unable to afford what everyone should be able to take for granted,  government has to offer short-term solutions to protect citizens, such as free school meals during holidays.

But can one discern any such thinking having been applied to date; or is it to be expected from this government any time soon? I have doubts on both counts.  We already have spoiled crops, empty shelves, high shopping bills and poor health, all of which could get worse under a government that itself has imposed the barriers to supply.

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