by Aris Roussinos
Monday, 21
December 2020
Spotted
11:14

Even John Redwood now thinks our food system is broken

Free-market fundamentalists are waking up to the importance of domestic farming
by Aris Roussinos
UK farmers are forced to compete with farmers abroad who are often subsidised by the state. Credit: Getty

Even as 2020 winds to a grim close, Covid has delivered once again, presenting us with yet another lesson in the weaknesses and fragility of the globalised economy. The new French restrictions on freight transport to the UK have led to another potential food crisis, with even free-market extremist John Redwood declaring that “we rely on imports too much. Let’s grow and make more at home.”

Like Pavlov’s dogs slobbering at the sound of a bell, Redwood’s naturally being mocked by the online lumpencommentariat who, just like when they campaigned against Brexit on the basis it would make importing sandwich ingredients from the continent more difficult, have internalised the logic of the free marketeers they claim to despise.

But Redwood’s instinct is sound, regardless of the source. We do import too much produce, over supply lines that are vulnerable to both the drift of international politics and acts of God; doing so is bad for the environment, and for British farmers, who are forced to compete with farmers abroad whose produce is often subsidised by the state, and who often farm intensively with far worse environmental standards than we allow at home, essentially extending our national pollution footprint overseas.

The British food system is broken, and we need to fix it, particularly with the looming threat of climate change waiting to disrupt the globalised food system. It’s absurd that we grow wheat in East Anglia and then feed it to livestock, while importing wheat from abroad to make processed supermarket bread; it’s obscene that Welsh hill-farmers scrabble a subsistence income from EU subsidies to export their lamb to continental Europe, while we import frozen New Zealand lamb from the other side of the world for our own use.

We don’t import Dutch tomatoes because they taste good (they don’t) or because the Dutch climate is better than Kent or Sussex (it isn’t), but because their government has invested heavily in domestic food production infrastructure, having learned, through the experience of famine in World War II, the inadvisability of being dependent on the global market for domestic food supply.

If free market fundamentalists like Redwood have suddenly realised the limitations of their ideological obsession, rudely forced to confront reality by events, then that’s a good thing, and their intellectual development should be encouraged. I wrote an article earlier this year about how Britain should move towards a more sustainable, self-sufficient food system, better for both the environment and British farmers, and the points raised in it are only underlined by today’s headlines.

The pioneering food theorist Colin Tudge is right to say that: “all nations should strive for self-reliance in food — at least producing enough of the basics to get by on — and exporting food only when the home population is well fed, and importing only what is truly desirable and cannot reasonably be grown at home.”

Similarly, even the NFU, the lobby group for industrialised farming, is correct when it says Covid is a “golden opportunity to place food security at the centre of our food system and become a global leader in sustainable food production,” placing British farming at the centre of a “green recovery”.

These are good and radical ideas on food sovereignty, being made for years and ignored for too long by environmentally-focussed, ethical farming activists like the Landworker’s Alliance and the Campaign for Real Farming: with even free market ideologues now accepting their diagnosis, we should make the most of this unexpected gift for real change.

The greatest problem in British public life is a lack of vision, and the inability to grasp opportunity for radical change whenever it’s offered: but our food system is simply too important to leave in the hands of Britain’s dismal political commentator class. It’s time for the British state to invest in domestic food production and finally start turning this crisis into an opportunity.

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Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago

There is an argument against following a policy of excessive self-sufficiency in food production: Importing food from around the world guards against famine caused by crop failure in any one country.
Balance in all things.

.

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Monoculture is the main problem there. With variety comes more stability, but people need to accept they can’t have everything ALL the time. I am not sure that will happen.

vtaproot
vtaproot
1 year ago

Monoculture is not the main problem. Even backyard gardens use monoculture, albeit on a small scale. Different crops require different needs and have different harvesting times. That’s why you don’t plant beans in with your tomatoes or rice in with your wheat.

David Stuckey
David Stuckey
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Why have people not mentioned cost? We import because it is cheaper, and also because us middle classes want pineapples in the middle of winter. If we decrease food imports (which I support in the main) then some food prices will increase. How you handle that is up to the (so called) government of today.

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago

Food needs to also be attactive for eating, and cookability. So, bread uses Canadian Wheat not British. Lamb produced by Welsh Hillfarmers is gorgeous for a few months of the year. Once the baby sheep are over 6 months old, or so, they become mutton – which British folk don’t like.

Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

I tend not to agree with John Redwood on a lot of things but, he has a point, for far too long we have imported food instead thinking how we can produce the food that the consumer wants. Brexit gives us an opportunity to change that.
I am old enough to remember Mutton and as a child enjoyed it, as did all of my family. OK to declare my interest, most of my forebears were livestock farmers, as are a lot of my second and third cousins today. Try and buy Mutton in the UK it’s really difficult. Unless you go to a butchers in a super posh neighbourhood.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

A few years ago someone wrote in, I think, The Spectator, of a type of more mature lamb, or mutton, that they preferred to ‘traditional’ lamb. Apparently it was very much for those in the know, available only at certain butchers, probably those you mention.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

111

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

11

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Morgan Pell sell what they call mutton, but is I believe lamb in its second year, and properly called hogget. Morgan Pell sell their own produce on my local farmers market. Good people. They farm north of Bedford.
google morganpellmeats.
Cheaper than Waitrose. You can buy cheaper still, of course, but you know where their meat comes from

Teo
Teo
1 year ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

The cuckoo libertarians were more interested in creating the market forces that served the corporate supermarket than the interests of the local market.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

Birmingham City Centre indoor markets sell mutton. As much as you want. The Afro Caribbeans love it for their curries and it is delicious.

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

I buy British wheat for my bread making, not Canadian – not all bread makers use foreign flour. It does depend on the type of bread you are making.
And British lamb is available all year round now. As for Mutton, it takes longer to cook, but is actually tastier.

vtaproot
vtaproot
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

Lamb refers to sheep that are less than one year old. Young sheep who are two years old are hoggets. Mutton refers to older sheep, often ewes that have lambed a few times before being butchered. It can also refer to goat meat.

Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

I suspect that few British folk know whether they like mutton or not as they have never had a chance to try it! My mother used to make a soup from her Welsh homeland, “cawl”, which required neck of mutton to be simmered seemingly endlessly before the addition of root vegetables and potatoes to complete the brew.

Personally I could not stand the stuff but my father was quite keen (or at least said that he was!). It is impossible to find out whether my tastes have matured as my local butcher tells me that neck of mutton seems completely unavailable now. (Probably all bought up by Ginsters … )

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

Makes me wonder how us British survived all those thousands of years prior to international shipping

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

I used to keep sheep as a hobby and only took them to slaughter when I wanted more meat, which meant they could be anything from 9 months to several years old. The meat was always delicious.

Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
1 year ago

My only concern with this article, is the last paragraph which suggests the UK’s dismal political commentator class extends to the BBC which may cause some raised eyebrows, although i am not a farmer or involved in food production, most of my family are. Both the BBC’s farming today and Country File are hidden in the BBC’s output at off peak times, but they are there informative positive and supportive of the UK’s farming industry. Sadly only negative stories get into the mainstream media, but that could be changed if we wanted to.

David Collier
David Collier
1 year ago

To what extent should the state be telling farmers what they should grow or raise? I think that many people would argue not much, that what they grow should be driven by need or desire (i.e. the market, if you want to put it that way). This need comes in a number of forms. If you are a food-processor or supplier to, say, general everywhere restaurants, then your key driver will be consistency of product and predictable future price. If you are a direct consumer of the food then it will be driven by a number of things, often heavily influenced by advertising, direct or subtle, and for many people, what they are used to. The state can influence both of those things, the first through a mixture of regulations and incentives (though a lot of farmers won’t like it), and the second through nudge. Whether that is something that those who bellyache about us needing to produce more of what we consume understand I don’t know; I would hope they do, though be nice if they could say so.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
1 year ago

So free market, but with protectionism proportionate to the effect of supply risk and externalities.

jeffbb365
jeffbb365
1 year ago

UK domestic food security is an issue that came to prominence as the UK became highly dependent on supply by sea of essential foodstuffs in the latter part of the industrial revolution. Similar concerns developed over energy security with the replacement of domestically mined coal with oil as a major component of our energy needs. The rise of foreign naval power gave added impetus to these concerns as doubts began to arise over the Royal Navy’s ability to guarantee maritime supply lines. These fears became real in WW1 and an issue of survival in WW2 with the advent of mass submarine warfare. The issue of energy security was also highlighted by the oil crisis of the 70s but in a repeating failure of policy, once war and other crises were over, the issues of food and energy security were always “forgotten” due to the perceived cost and difficulty of their solution. However things have changed, not least in public policy, that make domestic food and energy security more achievable and desirable than ever before. Indeed, driven by concerns over pollution, climate change and the possible exhaustion of hydrocarbon reserves, the UK is well on the way to achieving domestic energy security. Technology has been the great enabler of this transition and once electric vehicles have become common place, energy security will have effectively been attained. Meeting those same public policy concerns in relation to food production should lead to both an increase in domestic food production and, just as importantly, an increase in the consumption of food produced domestically. As with energy, technology can be the great enabler of this transition with for instance energy efficient green houses, “vertical farms” and improved sustainable, organic or low chemical agricultural methods becoming more widespread (farming is understandably a conservative undertaking).
This should deliver both an increase in domestic food production and a wider variety of foods produced domestically (e.g. historic exotics that have become staples or quasi-staples such as chillies) without requiring more land to be given over to intensive agriculture. As an aside consideration needs to be given to supporting “culturally significant” food production such as hill farming, lowland cattle and game if we truly value the landscapes that they produce or require. Just as with energy there also needs to be a comprehensive public information campaign to change consumer behaviour delivering both a shift to seasonal consumption and an increase in consumption of domestically produced food (an increase in seafood consumption being an obvious goal). A reduction in consumption of true exotics that cannot be grown in the UK (even with technological assistance) might be welcome on environmental grounds but is not necessary for food security. Even the UK media might have problems extrapolating the end of the world from the absence of coffee derived from civet faeces.

juanplewis
juanplewis
1 year ago

“who often farm intensively with far worse environmental standards than we allow at home”

No examples given. Usually this hides some technophobia and most countries whose farming is looked down upon by European and British journalists are much more innovative, efficient and productive at farming than anything that is done in Europe and the UK.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago

Never could understand why its more financially beneficial to export lamb (et al) and then bring more in from the other side of the world. Is that Greta Whatsit girl aware of this anomaly?

John Dowling
John Dowling
1 year ago

Contrary to the propaganda, climate change from the end of the Little Ice Age (mid-19th century) has been wholly beneficial for the UK; a tad more rain in Scotland, some more sunshine hours and a temperature rise of less than 1’C, leading to a longer growing season. (UK Met Office data, see Paul Homewood’s analysis) There are indications that winters may be wetter and warmer, (less heating costs) and summers drier; farming practices may have to change (farmers are good at adapting) and drainage systems improved. Research by scientists not on the UN gravy-train based on data, records and real-time measured trends (not unverified computer models) indicate a likely gradual temperature rise of 1’C to 1.5’C by 2100 (as far as anyone can predict weather or climate 80 years ahead), again farmers will adapt. Farmers’ purpose is to feed the people and care for the farming environment, not to be used as blunt weapons for politically-motivated alarmist “environmentalists”.

Teo
Teo
1 year ago

The Redwood solution to the Redwood problem a nation of serfs in the wasteland of Redwood’s ideological obsessions.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Teo

Please elucidate

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

Redwood is an idiot and idiocy is widespread among the ranks of Brexiter MPs (Mark Francois, Bernard Jenkyns, etc.)

“…to export their lamb to continental Europe, while we import frozen New Zealand lamb from the other side of the world for our own use.”
because around 70% of imported lamb is from New Zealand, 15% from Australia. The gestation period of sheep is 152 days, lambing season being in Spring, the season being the opposite in each hemisphere.
And there are questions about food taste – look at the fish caught and consumed by the British vs. Europeans.

Dutch agri model (highly productive) is very polluting. May be UK should go Dutch but let’s be clear about the costs/benefit equation.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

For God’s sake
Will you please stop using this forum to insult people.

Does anyone know of a mechanism for requesting that this poster be banned from Unherd?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I recently used the menu at the right hand side of a comment to Block a user from my feed – after all, life is too short …

(the individual in question repeatedly made Jeremy’s “feistiness” seem somewhat quaint by comparison)

Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

If it helps, I never read posts that have insults in the first paragraph, logic dictates, if you have to be insulting you either are unable to make a point, or your argument is weak or non existent.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I like having a few rough sorts in the mix, they can add to the reality of discussion, and I am often one myself. What I do not care for is stopping someone who has ideas and information from posting because they may sometimes offend, and Smith made a great point I had not thought of in that the seasons for lamb are opposite (antipodes), and so it all makes sense.

(woke is worse than being an insulter, and wokes rule the internet) edited in the attempt to get out of moderation as just my gentle profanity kicked it out.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Would you also be happy to extend that ban to those members of the Unherd commentariat who regularly insult Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Joe Biden, BBC reporters, Guardian journalists, teachers etc? If so I suspect the comment sections would be considerably shorter but unarguably more interesting.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

Name them and we can discus.
“If so I suspect the comment sections would be considerably shorter but unarguably more interesting.”
Is that what you meant to say?

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Unheard, unfortunately is the only way some people can be heard. I think you can block folk though?

David Stuckey
David Stuckey
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

In contrast to most posters on this site who love sweeping generalisations and NEVER insult people with different points of view?

simon taylor
simon taylor
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Whilst I find the poster`s opinions and credo repugnant, I must defend his right to post- to do otherwise would be no-platforming and we all know where that leads.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
1 year ago
Reply to  simon taylor

I am not complaining about his opinions or his credo. The right to post need not extend to a right to abuse and insult other people. He can post on Twitter if he wishes to behave in that manner.

vtaproot
vtaproot
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Goats are seasonal breeders. Some breeds of sheep (Dorsets, for example) can breed all year long if they are well fed.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Remainers are the supreme idiots though.

Not only is the EU single market fundamentally unsustainable
https://www.stockholmresili
https://www.stockholmresili

Eu free movement of labour was increasing the UK population and destroying agricultural land to increase grey infrastructure.

The logic (idiocy) of remainers is that we could continue growing the UK population and sustain our food needs via imports from the EU and globally.

In other words, remainers are the ultimate in ultra free marketeers. Otherwise known as EU neoliberalism as espoused by the EU Treaties.