In February, a key Government adviser was telling Ministers UK food production is not critically important. Let’s hope the pandemic has shown our trade negotiators the opposite is true, says Neil Farmer, an arable and sheep farmer from the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border.
I can think of two positives that have come from the coronavirus outbreak.
One is that the virus has knocked Brexit off the front pages and the top of the BBC news, and the second is the importance of home-grown produce has been highlighted.
The sight of empty supermarket shelves is something that most – if not all – millennials and centennials have never seen before.
Maybe, just maybe, it will concentrate the minds of some and make clear that plentiful, affordable and good-quality food is not a given, but has to be carefully planned, produced, stored, processed and retailed.
And all this has to be financed.
The Common Agricultural Policy had its faults and critics, but it has provided this good-quality, affordable food for many decades.
This is a fact the younger generation would do well to remember.
Greg Wallace has been doing a lockdown update of his ‘In the Factory’ TV series. The three examples I have seen are Heinz Baked Beans, Walkers Crisps and Typhoo Tea.
All three factories have seen an increase in demand of 20 per cent and more since early March, and they have all increased production by adding more shifts.
Heinz has temporarily dropped some of its less popular products and has been canning Baked Beans from Sunday lunchtime till Saturday evening, only stopping their lines for servicing and cleaning overnight on a Saturday.
All this extra production needs extra raw materials, whether it’s beans, potatoes or tea leaves, which in turn clearly have to be produced.
I for one am surprised the prices of these raw materials have not shot up. I feel sure they will at some point.
McCcain’s were pulling some potato contracts before planting in March due to the lack of demand from fast food outlets during lockdown.
This could be a decision they will live to regret, as they will be wanting those potatoes this time next year, and judging by the recent queues outside the McDonald’s drive-thru in Hereford, ‘fries’ are going to be wanted.
As late as February 29, reports that key Government adviser Dr Tim Leunig had said the food sector was ‘not critically important’ to the country’s economy and that ‘agriculture and fisheries certainly are not’ were being published.
These comments could not have been timed better to be proved wrong by the coronavirus situation.
One thing Dr Leunig certainly does not understand is it is not all about the money.
Also, he clearly does not know how the weather will affect food production, not just in the UK but all over the world.
The results of 26 inches of rain in the five months since late September 2019 and severe drought from March to mid-June this year will soon prove this fact.
The big problem as I see it is Dr Leunig is a senior Government adviser, and with advice like his – whether proved wrong or otherwise – the Brexit negotiators will have food production and processing a long way down their list of priorities.
And it’s a worry that this same advice will not help promote UK agriculture in future trade negotiations with countries like the USA.
It remains to be seen if the UK consumer will buy things such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef, both practices being banned in the European Union for many years.
But some will buy it, I’m sure, when buying on price.
Fast food outlets will be tempted too, especially if they have witnessed the recent queues outside their restaurants.
If through trade negotiations this beef and chicken is allowed into the UK, perhaps in turn it will open up markets in America for all UK-produced meats, including beef and chicken.
With clever marketing, promoting the welfare standards during production and the eating quality, it could just be a winner.
Neil can be found tweeting at @Nelliefarmhouse