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Food security: time for a ‘long-overdue’ rethink

Food security, just a few weeks ago in happier times when Parliament was discussing the Agriculture Bill line-by-line, the Farming Minister and I slugged it out over food security, and frankly, very few people noticed, says Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner.

Fast forward to now, and when I tried to purchase Tim Lang’s ‘Feeding Britain’ the other day, it had sold out.

 

Suddenly, it matters, and it always should have done - when times are good, we too easily forget just how vulnerable we are.

 

When the Agriculture Bill was first introduced, Michael Gove’s plan to shift support to ‘public money for public goods’ was widely praised, but to the astonishment of many he omitted food as a primary goal for our farmers.

 

Lower standards

 

All the more unfortunate for him then that just a few weeks ago, the omission was under-scored by the Government adviser who queried whether we really need farmers any more, why don’t we just be like Singapore and import our food?

 

That rather let the cat out of the bag - a number of us had suspected all along that the plan was really to save money by cutting support to farmers in general, and opening the doors to lower-standard, imported cheaper food.

 

The cover was to be to back higher value, environmentally-friendly farming producing food that would be great for those who can afford it, and never mind the rest.

Rethink

 

That debate will continue, but in the meantime, food security is back centre stage, and as with all crises, this may be the time for a long-overdue rethink.

 

As Tim Lang rightly points out, the Gordon Brown government, following the agriculture commodity crisis of 2007-8, did seriously rethink Britain’s food strategy, which led to the Food 2030 policy unveiled by Hilary Benn at the Oxford Farming Conference in early 2010.

 

It bears re-reading a decade later. The food resilience strategy from 2009 has been literally cut and pasted into current Government documents, but the sad truth is that after 2010, successive Governments have been asleep at the wheel, and have only now belatedly returned to the issue.

 

Food strategy

 

The new Food Strategy being developed by Henry Dimbleby will hopefully revisit many of these points, but as Labour has repeatedly pointed out, the trilogy of Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Bills is being considered in the wrong order, without the essential linkages - the food strategy must come first.

 

But as in so many other areas, the Brexit imperative has perverted the policy-making and skewed our priorities.

 

Direct payments

 

Just a few weeks ago, the Continuity of direct payments to Farmers Bill was debated, and as the title suggests, it provides the legal basis for continuing direct payments to farmers for this year. But this year only.

 

It was based on a new system being in place next year. We warned that the Government was unwise to assume that everything would be done and dusted in good time, and that they should make provision to continue in future years in the event of problems.

 

But the perverse Brexit imperative over-rode plain common sense, with no delay countenanced - everything was oven-ready. With the Agriculture Bill now stuck again, that may well have to be revisited, but if any good comes from this crisis it may be that the issues can be seen in the round, that we rethink the importance of food in general, and food security in particular.

Robust

 

So far, the food chain has proved robust and secure, and everyone involved is to be congratulated. How long that continues will depend on whether Government steps up to the challenge of labour shortages as we enter the UK growing season, but now is the chance to look again at how we price and value our food, the implications for our environment, health and welfare.

 

Suddenly, people are realising that retailers and shop-workers are vital to our daily lives - the challenge is to also explain that the primary producers are equally important, that, yes, we do need farmers and all those who work in food production - and just possibly, they should be properly rewarded.

 

Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner


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