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.