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We need a national food strategy more than ever

Whatever seemed relevant two months ago, perhaps only two weeks ago, has been turned on its head, says Oliver Dowding, arable farmer and agricultural spokesman for the Green Party in the south west.

None of us really know what is going on now, but the impact on everybody and everything is impossible to second-guess.

 

Last month I said “being outside the EU isn’t going to improve agriculture’s protection from….global disease challenges (e.g. swine flu) which do impact UK prices”. I should have added coronavirus.

 

What’s fascinating about national responses is that all the EU countries are closing their national borders. One of the major brexiteer claims was “to take back control” and close our borders, telling everybody that the EU forbade it. Evidently not (always).

 

Disruption

 

The disruption of supply chains is going to be phenomenal. Not just the supply of food by processors/retailers, but the supply of many of the things that we all need on farm to produce it. The range is endless, including machinery, parts, packaging and more, often supplied from countries such as China.

 

This is all at a time when the supermarkets power is ever greater. One fruit supplier noted recently that his prices were down 15 per cent over the past year whilst labour costs had risen 18 per cent. Supermarkets being tough negotiators may seem good to them but they’ll kill the industry if they continue to behave like that.

 

One major current producer recently said Tesco carrots at 49p/kg was similar to 25 years ago.

 

John Cherrington once wrote a book about his time in agriculture called “on the smell of an oily rag”. These prices will dictate that is how we have to operate again but it’s not the way it should be.

 

Practices

 

What is disappointing about much policy analysis is that it comes one or more years after the event.

 

By then the impact on-farm has been felt, often devastatingly. Changing the practices or pricing so long after the crisis level has been reached is of minimal help.

 

I wonder how all the people responsible for closing small abattoirs, for example, will feel now that we are seeing a desperate scramble to keep everything local?

 

Strategy

 

Post coronavirus people are going to have an overwhelming desire to re-evaluate the real things that matter to real people. It will be surprising what modern “conveniences” people manage to do without but how the basics of life – food being the principal one – will take on a new value and meaning.

 

Farmers and growers must maximise this opportunity to reconnect with consumers, not so much through trade bodies or Government, but directly. We have to persuade them of what real values are and that we can provide them.

 

We need a national food strategy more than ever. This crisis will influence Henry Dimbleby’s review, for sure.

 

Oliver can be found tweeting at @OliverDowding


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