The wartime generation digested the message “Dig for Victory” and responded with gusto, halving Britain’s reliance on food imports by the early 1940s. Now that our resilience is being tested once again – as a nation, as communities, as households – it is natural to wonder whether there are lessons to learn from the past.
When it comes to responding to Coronavirus, the singular priority of today’s political and civic leaders is to manage the present emergency. We should all be grateful that they are doing this – but the time will come when we have to consider a more delicate, humble future for the country, and that’s where a glance to the past is merited.
There will doubtless be calls for wholesale change, from the value we assign to those who keep us healthy and safe, to the very definition of “critical” infrastructure and “luxury” goods.
In this re-examination after the crisis I’ll be among those calling for the spotlight to be cast upon our national food systems. After setting out five years ago to disrupt Britain’s inadequate food supply chains, it now strikes me that our nation has moved very far from the ethos of Digging for Victory.
Yet the transformation of British farming coming via Brexit, our desire for healthier diets, our commitment to achieving net zero emissions, and now the impact of coronavirus, means that we must now take a new approach. All these developments point logically to a significant uptick in British food production.
When the global picture is one of inefficiency and inequality, overpopulation, obesity and climate-savaged supply chains, is the common-sense response not to re-emphasise the local? It’s far easier to control food quality, security and sustainability when a higher proportion of that food is being sourced from within the country.
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Food production is also of course an evergreen economic necessity; in times of volatility, surely the kind of wealth and employment generator you want to hold closest. Surely few would argue against more jobs and investment, less carbon and food miles, better access to fresh, healthy produce and better protection from unforeseen systemic shocks.
The supermarkets have been calling for more British produce since well before COVID-19, reflecting a resurgent consumer desire for local food supply. Yet, for whatever reason, the government has not been vocal on this point. The Conservative Party manifesto envisages people around the world “lining up to buy British”. But its emphasis is on quality, not quality plus scale.
The Agriculture Bill currently passing through Parliament certainly calls for greater innovation and productivity in British farming, and seeks to deploy public funds for “public goods”. But Ministers have stopped short of nominating increased British food production as a “public good”. Indeed, I have not seen anyone in government or policymaking prepared to make the case for Britain producing more of its own food.
Perhaps this will come when the National Food Strategy reports back on its root-and-branch review of our entire food system and its interconnectedness to other pillars of society. Or perhaps momentum will gather behind the suggestion that an investment in greater self-sufficiency is an investment in national resilience.
For those wondering whether it can be done, I point you to the work of my business, Low Carbon Farming Ltd. In our first two projects in East Anglia we now have two of the largest greenhouses in the country, and they will produce 12% of the nation’s homegrown tomatoes next year. Assuming a classification as “critical infrastructure” permits them to complete construction this year as planned.
With more than 80% of our tomatoes currently imported from countries more susceptible to extreme drought and other challenges associated with a changing climate, an investment of just over £100 million to bolster by 12% our domestic production of tomatoes looks a bargain.
In fact, far-sighted government policy made this possible. Energy policy, not food policy. Because these projects will capture waste heat from nearby water recycling centres rather than from traditional on-site fossil fuels, they are supported by government’s mechanism to stimulate a market for renewable heating in the UK.
If two projects imagined and delivered by an SME in Brighton can increase noticeably our national resilience in tomatoes, imagine what might be achieved nationwide. With a bankable project template in hand and a world-first business model now proved, we’ve looked at the potential to develop low carbon greenhouses alongside suitable water recycling centres the length and breadth of the nation.
We’ve identified more than forty viable sites to date. That’s sufficient low carbon growing capacity to see Britain become entirely self-sufficient in both tomatoes and cucumbers, should it wish to do so.
While in reality we anticipate growing other produce, from peppers to flowers, alongside tomatoes and cucumbers, the point remains: scalable and sustainable innovation in British farming can have a significant displacing effect on food imports.
This is in no way intended as an argument against global trade. But with global pandemic joining climate change and a host of other reasons to reimagine a food system fit for the 21st Century, it is surely time to start growing more British produce.
Rather than digging for victory, we can grow for British resilience.
Simon Turner is a Director of Low Carbon Farming Ltd, a British business working to decarbonise food supply chains by reducing agricultural reliance on fossil fuels.