Around about the 20th of August we will run out of food. A sobering thought but actually not likely to happen whilst we can still import food from other countries. The statement does bear further scrutiny though. This is the date that the country would notionally run out of food if the public had only eaten British produce from the 1st January. As a country, we are only about 60% self-sufficient in food. Research shows we import 93% of our fruit and 47% of our vegetables. Clearly some of this represents crops that we cannot yet grow in the UK such as bananas, however, there is a large amount of food that could be produced in the UK which is now imported and this is increasing year on year. It is partly driven by consumers’ desire to have a year-round supply of seasonal food. As a consumer should you really care where the food comes from as long as it’s cheap? Well, it seems you do. A recent survey showed that more than half of UK adults want to buy more British food. Let’s not kid ourselves though, most people still buy on price but at the same time they expect that food to reach certain standards.
We have a potential problem here by relying on importing more and more of our food. Just cast your minds back to the start of the pandemic and remember the empty supermarket shelves. The same thing has happened in the past with extreme weather events slowing down deliveries and panic buying quickly clears the shelves. Food rationing lasted for several years after the end of World War 2 because prior to the war we had relied heavily on importing food from the Empire. Post war, the government actively encouraged farmers to produce more food and was very successful, especially after we joined the European Community as it was then. In fact, too successful producing milk lakes and mountains of grain. Those days are long gone and now with our exit from Europe, the looming climate crisis and a change in emphasis for UK agricultural support, future food shortages are a possibility. Looking forward, with increasing world population and a rapidly changing climate, is now the right time to turn English farmers into park keepers? At the same time as we rewild, plant trees and wild flowers we import our food and export our environmental foot print. Countries that cut down vast areas of rain forest to grow soya for example, cannot be offset by planting a few more trees in the UK. We currently import grain and meat products from around the world that are grown using pesticides and animal welfare standards that are illegal in the UK. Food labelling is misleading. Processed food can have a union jack on it if it has been manufactured in Britain using imported raw materials.
There is however one label you can trust and that is the Red Tractor, which is only found on food and drink grown and manufactured in Britain. Certified to rigorous standards that can be traced right back to the field it was grown in. If it has the logo as shown in the photo then it has been responsibly sourced, safely produced and comes from crops and animals that have been well cared for. As farmers we are regularly inspected at least once a year to remain as certified farms. All parts of our production process are scrutinised including pesticide use, storage and machinery maintenance and use. A similar scheme covers livestock production. We can literally trace every lorry load that leaves here back to the day we planted it, with all applications recorded and checked. The same holds true for fruit, vegetables and salads grown in the UK.
Now we are no longer a member of the EU our trading relations with the rest of the world are going to become even more important. I fully understand the need to be able to supply cheap food for our consumers, but it has to be at least as safe as that produced by British Farmers. We also need to protect the environment and mitigate against climate change. Farmers are part of the solution and we should be looking to use the centre of our fields (which are more productive and less attractive to wildlife) to produce safe, affordable food whilst providing habitats for flora and fauna on the margins. The current muddled and confusing messages that we are getting from the government on future farm support don’t fill me with much confidence that we will achieve this sensible balance.