“Yes! We have no bananas, we have no bananas today,” ran the hit song by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn exactly one hundred years ago. A century later, change the fruit being hymned to tomatoes and you have an anthem celebrating what passes for deprivation in Britain today.
The rationing of tomatoes in February (a month when our grandparents could never have dreamed of eating that fruit) has caused consternation among a population from whom globalised consumerism has erased any consciousness of seasonal variety. Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey robustly reminded the public that, at this time of year, they ought to be eating turnips. Er – up to a point, Lord Copper – but an egg and turnip sandwich sounds like rather an acquired taste. Simultaneously, disappointed Brexiteers are finding that, no sooner have they emancipated themselves from EU regulations on pencil-straight cucumbers than the vegetable becomes unobtainable.
Behind the classically British tales of empty supermarket shelves and rationing of unseasonable fruits and vegetables being borne with considerably less fortitude than in 1940, there is a serious consideration. Food security now ranks as high a priority as energy security. The war in Ukraine has brought us face to face with the reality that over-extended supply chains constitute a vulnerability: the delusions of globalism are rapidly being dispelled.
Of course, we are far from facing any imminent threat of starvation because a cold snap in Morocco has left tomatoes in short supply in February; but there are many reasons that now impel us to rethink our national food strategy. This week, Jamie Blackett, who farms in Dumfriesshire and writes on rural affairs, contributed an outspoken piece to The Daily Telegraph, in which he expressed little confidence in Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). He claimed that officials were “still in the grip of the Green Blob and wholly uninterested in the messy business of producing food”.
It seems evident that British officialdom has not shaken off the mindset of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the presumption that food production should be curbed in the imagined interests of environmental concerns. The Government gives the impression of being insufficiently aware of the realities and needs of the farming community and – beyond that – of the British public.
Addressing the annual conference of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) this week, its president Minette Batters starkly outlined the current state of cost inflation in the industry: animal feed costs up by 57 per cent; energy costs up 79 per cent; and fertilisers up 169 per cent. That last price rise is very directly connected to the war in Ukraine.
Avian influenza and energy costs have hit the poultry sector, with nearly a billion fewer eggs produced in 2022, compared with 2019, its lowest level for nine years. As dismayed shoppers have discovered, production of salad ingredients such as tomatoes and cucumbers are expected to fall to their lowest levels since records began in 1985. Farmers will lose their energy subsidies when the scheme ends on 31 March, since farming is not included on the Energy and Trade Intensive Industries list.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Minette Batters emphasised that food security was not the same thing as self-sufficiency: we shall always rely on imports to some extent. She welcomed the Government’s publication of its food strategy last June, since it recognised the importance of domestic production to food security. Public sector Research and Development will be crucial in delivering a science-based step change in agricultural productivity.
The government’s National Food Strategy recommended the creation of a Rural Land Use Framework based on the “three compartment model” of land use: “Some farmland will have to be repurposed or adapted for environment projects. Some will have to be farmed at lower yields to enable nature to thrive. Some will have to become higher-yielding, low-carbon farms, using new technologies to increase productivity without polluting the earth.”
Those are all worthy objectives, but the language does not suggest a high prioritisation of increased food productivity. Farmers have always been society’s leading conservationists and they are rapidly adapting to green targets. But this is yet another area in which misplaced “net zero” zealotry could disrupt what should be our primary objective: producing more food. Many official utterances bear out Jamie Blackett’s complaint that “thanks to net zero targets, acres of productive land continue to be given over to solar farms, while the nation’s roofs remain relatively unpanelled”.
A balanced approach is the answer and the Government is the arbiter that should facilitate that outcome. It must deploy its new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes in a way that ensures farmers are properly incentivised to implement sustainable farming practices.
We need to approach the project of increasing domestic food production with a sense of urgency. Just because we are not threatened with starvation, we have no right to be complacent. We have no certain knowledge of the future trajectory or possible escalation of the Ukraine war and the wider effects it might have on supply chains. The same applies to natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
There are even siren globalist voices arguing that a policy directed towards national self-sufficiency actually undermines food security, in the event of national crop failures. Such a catastrophe is more likely to occur in the developing world and we would be best placed to help mitigate its effects if we had a large domestic agricultural surplus. Last November the world’s population passed the eight billion mark; that suggests every country should try to maximise its food output.
The UK should use every lever of innovation, advanced technology and research to increase farming output, while protecting food safety, maintaining high but not oppressive regulatory standards, ensuring efficient distribution systems and keeping food affordable. We must also ensure that any international trade deals to which we commit maintain food standards and do not disadvantage British farmers. All that may be regarded as a tall order, but it is fundamentally a question of maintaining equilibrium within our most basic industry.
During his leadership campaign, Rishi Sunak committed to a new food security target, to be guaranteed by a statutory obligation to monitor and report on annual levels of domestic food production. The NFU president said: “If this were to happen it would be the most significant commitment on food production since the 1947 Agriculture Act.” In fact, at the NFU conference, Thérèse Coffey refused to commit to more than a report every three years, as at present. She also confirmed that a Food Security Summit will be held this year.
The Conservative Party has always prided itself on being the natural champion of rural interests, though that has not always been evident in recent times. It is to be hoped the Government is aware of the needs of both the farming community and the wider public and has something more to offer them than advice to adopt a diet of turnips.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org