March 31, 2020

They say eight people in our little village have got this plague. It seems weird that it would have found its way here, to these isolated northern farming valleys, where the snow clings on to the high fells, and the woodsmoke rises from the scattered farmhouses.

I always imagined that the apocalypse would look a bit like the movie of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But this valley seems oblivious to the crisis — it is all daffodils, snowdrops, birdsong, and trees bursting into leaf.

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My flock is down in the valley bottom. The first lamb of the year was born today and is now lying with its mother. I come in from the fields and the TV news is like something from a science-fiction movie — they are building giant makeshift hospitals in the city centers. People are dying in their hundreds every day. But not far from the farmhouse a duck has made a nest by our pond and has laid thirteen pale green eggs in the midst of a perfect downy circle.

It is hard to connect the green fields where I work each day with the world of the virus. Hard to think it is the same world. But, of course it is. The virus has shown how connected we really are.

Our elderly neighbours have locked themselves inside — we take them groceries and urge them to wash their hands and stay away from town. The schools have closed, so our children are helping us on the farm. And once a week, my wife travels to the local supermarket for supplies.

At first, she reported panic runs on face masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitiser, and toilet rolls; then it was staple foodstuffs, like rice, pasta, flour, and meat. Now, she describes the quiet (but very palpable) fear that has emerged about the robustness and resilience of our food supplies. The system doesn’t feel quite as permanent as it did.

It is because of that fear that people are hoarding. British people have a billion pounds’ worth more food in their homes than they did 10 days ago. Their panic and the subsequent spike in demand took stores — and Government — by surprise and we all need to calm down.

But the unexpected demand isn’t the whole story. The whole story is the fragility of our just-in-time food system, which the crisis has exposed.

It’s a logistically brilliant system — it has allowed us to shop whenever we want for whatever we want, regardless of season or whether harvests have been good or bad — but it isn’t nearly as robust as it might need to be. Like our banks, which we learnt in the 2007-8 banking crisis were “too big to fail”, we now have food systems that are so hyper-efficient that they have little slack capacity for a crisis.

And the crises are coming thick and fast — the Australian bush fires destroyed 140,000 sheep and cattle — and many orchards, vineyards and crops; the African swine fever in China has killed millions of pigs and is spreading. The farming systems we have created are vulnerable; the more specialised and monocultural and crowded they are, the greater the vulnerability.

The obsession with efficiency in our food economy has done its best to destroy a distributed local and diverse food economy — local abattoirs are now as rare as hen’s teeth, farmers markets have very limited capacity, and most areas are so specialised in their farming focus that they rarely produce the things that would give us a balanced diet.

Barely any of us know the fields that feed us or grow a significant share of what we eat. There is way too little local fruit and vegetable production in most areas, and there has been a general loss of the food culture that once existed to turn local products in to great meals.

The Herdwick lamb and mutton we produce was used to make countless different meals in the past, using the whole carcass. Today, we eat only the most expensive plastic-wrapped bits of a chicken, sheep, pig or cow; the lower value cuts are generally exported or processed. Such pickiness suddenly becomes a problem in a crisis, because if exports close down, or kebab places are in lockdown, the system backs up with products with no market. Last week, for example, sheep prices collapsed, because the system was suddenly frozen with confusion and log jams.

And after months of media noise about everyone going vegan, we can now see the reality laid bare in the supermarkets: people want the foodstuffs they have always eaten. The meat, milks, dairy and cheese shelves are noticeably empty, and the plant-based fake food shelves are remarkably well stocked and uncrowded — as my neighbour stated in the store, “No one really wants to eat that shit”.

The argument has always been that we simply don’t need the old, mixed farming systems anymore — in which farms produce crops and raise livestock. But is that true?

Normally, we don’t all shop, eat or cook from these local sources, but a food system isn’t safe if it only works in the good times. Like sound healthcare systems, sound food systems need to have slack capacity for freak events. Britain produces about 60% of the food it eats; the other 40% is imported. It probably isn’t sensible to aim for 100% self-reliance (growing bananas in greenhouses in cold wet places in Britain is daft), but we need to be really careful about dropping too far from current capacity. It will make us vulnerable in times of crisis.

Norway has a deeply protectionist food system that supports its farmers as a matter of national strategic importance. Farmers there, for example, produce 80-90% of the national demand for beef and sheep meat. Since large areas of Norway aren’t globally competitive for agriculture, it doesn’t want to ‘outsource’ what food production it is capable of and put its rural communities — where family-run farms drive the local economy — at risk. It may turn out to be a very sensible policy. Ask yourself whether you trust Donald Trump to keep food supply lines to Britain open in a time of genuine food crisis? Or whether he might look after America’s interests first?

Many of us were politely pointing all this out as we headed into discussions about a free trade deal with America, which might reduce the share of Britain’s diet that is produced domestically, if the gates are opened for cheap food to flood in from North America.

No one was listening.

Less than a month ago, a UK government advisor, Professor Tim Leunig, was quoted in leaked emails as saying we didn’t need farmers, because the value of their output was a tiny share of the UK economy and we could import all the food we needed, perhaps at lower prices.

And for the past decade, a virulent strain of anti-farming environmentalism, led by noisy hard-Left radicals such as George Monbiot, has argued for us to turn away from farming towards producing food in synthetic industrial ways (with the promised pay-off of freeing more land for wild nature). This ‘land-sparing’ obsession embraces the worst industrial farming and corporate food systems.

Coming, as it does, from both ends of the political spectrum, this end-of-farming narrative is deeply worrying. My farming neighbours were rolling their eyes in disbelief a month ago at the absurdity of it all.

The obvious truth is that it takes a lot of food to feed 65 million souls — a fact that is so easily forgotten in the good times. With a full belly, everyone knows better than farmers how to manage land, and how to care for the countryside.

The lunatic anti-farming voices are rather quiet at the moment, though. The national discussion is, instead, about empty shelves, whether our food supplies are secure, and discussing whether farmers and others in the food sector are classified as ‘key workers’. Suddenly, more measured experts are being given airtime, farmers are being listened to — and our value understood.

Today, an estimated 8.4 million people are at risk of running short of food — and food banks won’t cope with that sort of demand. The closure of restaurants, pubs, cafes and bars hasn’t helped: we get something like 25% of our calories from these places nowadays. And the supermarkets are going to experience demand unlike anything they have ever known — with challenges that they aren’t used to coping with. Our fruit and vegetable farms often rely upon migrant seasonal workers who can now no longer travel to the work.

Professor Tim Lang, one food system expert, is now openly calling for the UK government to impose food rationing before we descend into a greater crisis. It’s no wonder people are panicking and behaving in ways we haven’t seen in generations.

There is public fear that our food system might not be up to it, but I think we probably can avoid a genuine food crisis in the developed world. Governments have responded relatively quickly to this virus, and it will be overcome. You shouldn’t read this piece and panic.

Instead, you should stay calm and shop sensibly. And you should eat what you buy: remember, we waste 40% of our food.

We do however need to think very carefully about how the nation feeds itself, because in the long run we will need a truly robust and resilient food system, with strong local food economies. This is our wake-up call to respect farming once more — not uncritically: we have an absolute right to want more nature on farmland, high welfare standards for farm animals, and safe and healthy food. But Britain must seek to understand and remember the value of farming and food production.

Things are going to get a whole lot worse if, after this is all over, we continue as though nothing has changed and throw British farmers to the mercy of global free trade and systems that are big, bad and ugly. We need to protect this key national resource so it is there for us through thick and thin.

Because if another disaster strikes — and it will — then I want a significant share of my diet to be available within walking distance of where I live. I want to know where I can source food for my family, and if that means I pay a bit more for food in the good times, then so be it. As one Twitter wag recently posted, the City of London may offer a better way to get rich than farming, but “You can’t eat credit default swaps, kids”.