UK shoppers get a third of what they eat from other EU member states. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, tells the Government it must wake up to the importance of food security as it prepares for Brexit.
British public policy on food and farming is always interesting. We have form here. It’s all tied up with our ambivalence about whether we want to or know how to feed ourselves well. Foreign holidays have helped.
But the last time the UK fed itself entirely was in the late 18th century. It usually takes a war to wake us up to food security.
What I find bizarre about the Brexit debates is that almost no-one talks about food supply. Or not loudly in public yet. They ought to.
The UK gets a third of its food from across the Channel, mostly the good stuff for health. We import £8.5 billion worth of horticultural produce. Food matters for health.
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.
Fresh after the Napoleonic wars, in the 1820s, Parliament passed Corn Laws which protected home production from cheap imports by imposing tariffs on imports. Doing what President Trump did to Chinese steel this week, only for China to bring reality with tariffs on US soya and pork. Ouch. Trade wars are nasty.
In 1846, Parliament repealed the Corn Laws, ending landed influence in Parliament. Industry and financial interests were on top. Rapidly growing towns were hungry for cheap food. Industrialists wanted to keep wages down.
Farming slowly declined, only to be rescued briefly in World War 1, again more vigorously in World War 2, 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’.
In other words, in about 30 months, the UK must have sorted how it is to be fed – by whom, on what terms, at what price, with what impact. At present, no-one seems to have a clue.
I confronted a very senior civil servant about this last week. I 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 the 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.
The documents are interesting, but the only time food was considered was in the sub-title of the second paper, and in the name of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I think Defra is becoming the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.
This is serious. Farming is actually tiny in the food chain. It only produces about £9 billion of gross value added out of about £120 billion. Farming gets about 4.5 per cent of the earnings from the £204 billion consumers spend annually.
Yet we are leaving where we get a third of our food in about 30 months, and the Prime Minister is adamant we leave the Single Market and Customs Union! You couldn’t make it up.
Mr Gove promises to maintain subsidies till the end of this Parliament in 2022. But read the small print, and the subsidies will be cut. These are what keep farming going. That and grit and bloody mindedness. Owner occupiers also have the capital assets.
Fine though the talk of environmental protection is, I wonder now if the non-existent Food Plan is simply to import ever more, from wherever land and labour are cheap. There’ll be lots of spam and soya on the market soon, I hear. Anyone for setting up a Land Army?