There can’t ever have been a more appropriate day than today to publish a book on UK food security – not since 1939 – and that, I promise, is the last mention of the war in this posting because however terrible the present pandemic is, it isn’t a war and you can’t ‘win’ it with threats, flag waving and bombs. What this microscopic particle of viral life has achieved is to shine a light on the 21st century; on all our political, economic, employment, transport, social, medical, manufacturing, food and farming systems. Every one of them is being stress tested at the moment and the vast majority of them are creaking, even where the rivets aren’t yet popping; and that’s before the brexit negotiations even start in earnest.
This new study by Tim Lang, probably the leading light in the study of food security, and published today, couldn’t come at a better time. Here at the Potwell Inn we have some experience on the subject because Madame once worked at a university research station and has watched their crucial work on fruit growing privatised and the plantations sold off for building land. Our son once earned some pocket money helping a local fruit farmer grub up his cider apple trees only to be paid to plant them again ten years later. I can remember standing at a field gate looking at a sea of blue flowers with the farmer. “It’s a marvellous crop”, he said, ” – and I don’t even have to harvest it. If the crop’s too wet and gets ruined. I just have to drive a tractor on to the field and I can still claim the subsidy”. I’ve stood in the queue at the local Methodist church to collect my free portion of the EU butter mountain – oh yes – we’ve been living dangerously in the UK for a very long time and this week we’ve all experienced what food insecurity feels like; endless queues, empty shelves, unobtainable food staples, profiteering and sharp-elbowed shoppers pushing the elderly and vulnerable to one side, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’ve seen ambulance personnel attacked, food delivery vans burnt out and the supermarkets overwhelmed and underprepared. Farmers and producers are banging their heads against a brick wall because they are unable to recruit their usual seasonal employees due to closed borders, and the very existence of many small artisan food businesses and producers which are the best hope for a sustainable future is threatened because they lack the cash reserves of the food industry.
And then there are all the other issues that demand the attention of our politicians.”Could do better” hardly begins to describe them. Suddenly our niche attempts to grow at least some of our food begin to look important. One of our allotmenteers has a dig for victory up on their shed. In the sunshine today our site was busy with newly unemployed people trying to extract at least something positive out of the pandemic and because the garden centres and the allotment trading hut have all closed down there will be a lively free market in swops and shares. all conducted recognising the two metre exclusion zones which are being rigidly observed by everyone. Ironically there have been many more shouted conversations than have ever happened before; the sun’s shining, things are growing and just doing something feels a lot better than moping around and feeling cross.
It’s a bit soon to be thinking about what we do after this is all over, and yet there will never be a better time to reflect on just how insecure our food supply has become. I’ve only read the preface this afternoon, but here are a few words to give a taste of the argument Tim Lang is pursuing
The UK has a benign but very varied climate. It has some rich soils and extensive uplands and grasslands. No critic says the UK should be growing its own bananas or mangoes, but that it imports huge quantities of what it could perfectly well grow here suggests a failure of political economy. Vast amounts of land are used to produce feed for cattle, when almost all scientific advice is to reduce cattle and to shift production from red to white meat (but that too has problems).
This is not a misty eyed yearning for the past, but the honest recognition by a respected scientist (and one-time farmer) that we’re on a collision course with reality here. Some problems can be too big to solve unless they’re addressed at a national and international level. There are voices already that the initial cause and then the main vector of transmission of the coronavirus is the product of a dangerously out of control addiction to productivity and profitability, low prices and the industrialisation of agriculture.
What started in a wet market in China wasn’t an act of God but, as it were, the terrible but predictable consequence of intensive agriculture driving what was once a sustainable peasant economy into the ground and creating a semi legal and shadowy trade in live meat beyond any health and safety controls. What would be an absolute tragedy would be to conclude that only industrialised agriculture is safe enough to feed the world. Like weapons manufacturers across the world, the industry will claim that it has no moral responsibility for the impact of its products on the lives of the poor. We’ve known since the SARS epidemic in 2003 that these zoonotic crossovers were an ever present threat and this is the seventh transmissible viral infection to be identified. The subsequent breakdown in health provision and food supplies are all the evidence we should need to provoke deep reflection. I very much hope that this book will provide some calmly argued evidence for a complete rethink around our food.