Growing more food in Britain is good for jobs, nature, carbon and national security
Cows in a field in Marlow in Buckinghamshire | Alamy
3 min read
Britain needs to grow, rear and catch more of its own food. In an era of globalisation, this can seem like rose-tinted, “Dig for Victory nostalgia”. But in reality, this is a question of hard-nosed national security.
Britain has become too reliant on other countries for our food supply. Thirty-five years ago, Britain produced almost 80 per cent of the food it consumed, but today that figure has slumped to just over 60 per cent. If we want to maintain our national security and stay strong in the 21st century, this trend must be reversed.
Covid-19 and Brexit have posed huge challenges to the movement of food and drink between countries. New logistical barriers to the transportation of goods have arisen, with shortages of everything from salt to cider.
Polling data suggests that, at the turn of the year, a majority of British people had experienced food shortages recently. Some supermarkets have even taken to camouflaging empty shelves with cardboard cut-outs of food.
Of course, the solution to these shortages extends beyond growing more food in Britain. Food security is also a question of infrastructure and skills. Thousands of pigs were slaughtered wastefully on farms last year because Britain didn’t have the abattoir workforce to process them properly. Countless apples and other fruit rotted in fields because of a shortage of workers to pick them, and a shortage of HGV drivers to transport them. And millions in taxpayers’ money was reportedly spent in an emergency bailout of CF Fertilisers so the UK food industry had enough carbon dioxide reserves to soldier on.
And while tabloid headlines poke fun at shortages of McDonald’s milkshakes, there is a serious point to be made: logistical problems in getting food to shelves have led to price rises, meaning that more families are struggling to afford their weekly shop.
As Richard Walker, CEO of supermarket chain Iceland, warned last month, there are people in this country “facing a choice between heating and eating” as a result of price rises. We now live in a country where there are more foodbanks than branches of Sainsbury’s (or Aldi, or Lidl, for that matter).
Cheap food from abroad is locking us into a less secure future
The climate emergency is another very serious security threat. When resources are scarce, extremism thrives – making supply lines uncertain. Experts have pointed to climate crisis-induced drought for the rise of terrorist organisations including Isis and Boko Haram. By growing more food in Britain, we can slash food miles and harness our climate to grow food more efficiently than they can in Australia or Brazil – cutting carbon in the process – and maintaining our high food production standards.
This government is taking the opposite approach. It is undercutting our farmers with cheap imports from abroad, grown and reared to lower standards, and is cutting the farm payments scheme to shove hard-working farmers out of business. Cheap food from abroad is locking us into a less secure future.
The 1945 Labour government put food policy as an arm of national security. We are not in the same position, but it would do us no harm to re-examine our comfort with ever-extending supply chains and carbon-intensive production abroad. To cut carbon, we need to grow more in Britain. To safeguard rural jobs, we need to grow more in Britain. To become more secure at a time of global uncertainty, we need to grow more in Britain.
The government’s betrayal of our farmers in the Australian trade deal means we not only need to demand better, we need to look afresh at food security as a nation. That has to start with making sure every British citizen has enough food to eat, and that the supply of food is assured. There’s work to do.
Luke Pollard is Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport
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