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Tim Lang: 'We should not have to be at war to take food security seriously'

What I find bizarre about the Brexit debates is that almost no one talks about food supply.

 

Or not loudly in public yet, writes professor of food policy at City University, Tim Lang.

The UK gets a third of its food from across the Channel, mostly good stuff for health. We import £8.5 billion worth of horticultural produce.

 

The NHS is being wrecked by diet-related diseases and growing more food here would lower the yawning food trade gap. We import £22.5bn more food than is exported.

 

After the Napoleonic Wars, Parliament passed the Corn Laws, protecting home production by imposing tariffs on imports.

 

In 1846, Parliament repealed the laws. Industry and financial interests were on top. Rapidly growing towns were hungry for cheap food.

 

Farming slowly declined, only to be rescued briefly in World War I, again more vigorously in World War II, and properly in 1947.

 

Then we joined the Common Market in 1973, which we are set to leave in 2019, plus two years’ grace – the ‘transition’.

 

So, in about 30 months, the UK must have sorted how it is to be fed, by whom, on what terms, at what price and with what impact. At present, no one seems to have a clue.

 

I confronted a senior civil servant recently and asked: “Why are we still waiting for the Food Plan?” I had read a draft three years ago. It was weak, but at least it was something after the Coalition stupidly axed Food 2030, agreed in 2010.

 

He looked shocked. I think he thought it was in the two documents just published by Defra Secretary Michael Gove. These two policy documents are interesting, but say next to nothing about food.

 

A Green Future offers environmental principles for farming. Health and Harmony spells out options and details. The only time food was considered was in the sub-title of the second paper.

 

This is serious. Farming only produces about £9bn of gross value added out of £120bn. Farming gets 4.5 per cent of the earnings from the £204bn consumers spend annually.

 

Yet we are leaving where we get a third of our food and the Prime Minister is adamant we leave the Single Market and Customs Union. You could not make it up.

 

Mr Gove promises to maintain subsidies till 2022. But read the small print and the subsidies will be cut. These are what keep farming going, with grit and bloody-mindedness.

 

Fine though the talk of environmental protection is, I wonder if the non-existent Food Plan is to import ever more, from wherever land and labour are cheap.

T

here will be lots of Spam and soya on the market soon, I hear. Anyone for setting up a Land Army?


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