By Cassius Smith-Frazer and Jamie O’Dell
This government seems to have a penchant for 11th hour U-turns. Unless you’ve been living under a mince pie, you’ll be aware that the Johnson administration, spooked by a new Covid strain thought to have originated in Kent, has gone ‘full grinch’ and cancelled Christmas. Millions now living under new ‘Tier 4’ regional restrictions will have to stay put on the 25th, and even for those not (yet) effectively flung back into lockdown festive plans have been thrown into disarray.
But hark, what’s that down Dover way? A welcome slice of Christmas cheer? No, miles and miles of truck queues, heralding potential food shortages. Taking (back) control of their borders to ward off the spread of the new Coronavirus variant to the continent, the French banned hauliers carrying freight across the Channel and are still restricting travel significantly after the agreement to reopen the border was agreed.
Within the blink of an eye over 40 countries followed suit, cutting off travel to and from the UK. But the impact of France suspending logistics outweighs these other measures in significance because of what it means for the nation’s food supplies. Britain, to put it mildly, has a food strategy problem.
The neoliberalism of Thatcher and New Labour brought us financialisation, austerity and Brit-pop. An addition to these social delicacies which have underpinned globalisation is the just-in-time supply chain: a system that has fragmented and leaned down global supply chains to their maximum ‘efficiency’ with as little slack as possible.
The success of these supply chains has been achieved through squeezing the wages of the workers and suppliers involved in production and most closely matching supply with demand. The issue with this system, however, is its lack of resilience and over-reliance upon the market to regulate it, the fragility of which we saw through the empty shelves at the start of the first lockdown in March.
This lack of resilience is not solely limited to more immediate shocks, however. The issues that we are experiencing now are just the tip of the iceberg of the more permanent and volatile disruptions that could, and without radical changes will, be caused by the twin impending crises for British food security; Brexit and the climate emergency.
To put this into perspective, Professor Tim Lang, the UK’s leading expert on food policy, stated back in March that we are facing “a wartime scale of food challenge” alongside grossly unequal access to food.
“We have a massively fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse; a depleted agriculture sector which produces only around 50% of the food we actually eat, leaving us at the mercies of the international markets; and production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health. When I looked at the numbers on inequality, I was shocked. There’s a staggering gap between rich and poor in terms of wealth and income and therefore access to food… Food is the biggest driver of NHS spending as a result of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
This is something we wrote about back in October after Conservative MPs voted against the House of Lords’ Amendment 9 to the Agriculture Bill that would have required the government to produce a National Food Strategy and lay it before parliament. We have also written about the extent of food poverty in Stroud and the UK, as well as causes and potential solutions.
We discussed this last month with former Stroud MP and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee member David Drew. In this conversation, Drew highlighted just how little self-sufficiency we have with our food, and the now-evident vulnerability which comes with this.
He emphasised a multitude of issues which intersect to create this vulnerability, such as the misuse of much of our countryside space, a lack of variety in the products that we produce and how difficult it is to get into the farming industry, as well as the generally bad deal that our farmers are on the receiving end of.
These issues are not newly identified. A study conducted in 2003 by Carol Morris and Henry Buller, which assessed the local food sector in Gloucestershire, highlighted the potential for locally produced food as a solution to globalised food supply chains.
‘Local food… offers an alternative to this globalised system and a number of potential benefits such as a reduction in “food miles”, market opportunities for producers who are struggling to remain competitive in a global marketplace, income multiplier effects as a greater proportion of the money spent in local food outlets remains within the local economy), rural development, and better information flow to consumers about where their food has come from and how it has been produced. In short, local food, it is believed, is more sustainable than its global counterpart.’
If we want to ensure that everyone in the UK has access to healthy food to put on the dinner table then improving the resilience, sustainability, and self-sufficiency of our food supply chain is essential. This means changing how we grow and also how and what we eat to include a larger variety of seasonal foods into our diets. One of the key issues that Professor Lang has also noted is that British food security has essentially been left to the market for decades; the ‘leave it to Tesco’ approach. Here, a prioritisation on cheap, competitive, pricing has ‘hollowed out’ UK agriculture and left the primary producers of the food we buy with only 5-6% of its value.
It is painfully clear that we need a food strategy where we do not rely upon others to feed ourselves. We need to move away from the notion that the rest of the world will feed us that we developed during the colonial era and this has to be done through the implementation of an effective National Food Strategy.
Given Stroud’s rural nature, this could have significant and positive ramifications for local food production and the local economy. So the potential is clear, what we need now is the government support and strategy that will empower local people and local producers to meet this potential and allow Stroud, and the UK, to feed itself sustainably.