Now is the time to rethink, reset and rebuild our food supply from the ground-up
Our food production model was fundamentally flawed and on a dangerous trajectory even before Covid-19 | Credit: PA Images
By supporting the development of local processing capabilities, we can help build a stronger local economy where people can buy local produce more directly.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to exact a terrible toll on people’s health, our communities and economy, and we must focus on delivering effective measures now and build resilience for the future. In terms of our economy and food supplies, the virus has exposed and is exacerbating long-ignored issues, including our dependence on imports. Now is the time to rethink, reset and rebuild our food supply from the ground-up.
Walking down any supermarket aisle in the UK before the crisis you could be overwhelmed by the breadth and availability of food and drink products drawn from across the world. Lulled into complacency by prices that were amongst the cheapest in Europe, the UK Government steadily withdrew from food policy and allowed our food retail industry to become ever more concentrated so that just four companies now control 70% of the UK food retail market.
This system relied on a just-in-time logistics chain that depended on a global food production and transport network that flowed seamlessly across borders. While seemingly increasing logistical efficiency and order to food supply, the concentration of power amongst several large food retailers also gave them unprecedented power to dictate ever lower prices to farmers, continually sapping the financial health of domestic agriculture.
The burdens and costs of this system were apparent, from the cost to our climate to falling farmer incomes. Ever more dependent on imports as our domestic agricultural sector was squeezed, our food security worsened with the UK importing 39% of all the food consumed in 2018 while the gap in value between UK food and drink exports compared to imports worsened to £24 billion.
Simply put, our food production model was fundamentally flawed and on a dangerous trajectory even before Covid-19. Yet for many people and even the UK Government, the frailties and dangers of the current food supply model only became apparent when they saw empty shelves day after day as panic buying clashed with the now fractured logistical chain.
And, while nobody wants to mention it at the moment, it’s clear that Brexit is another imperative that has to drive the re-shaping of our food system and create greater resilience in the face of further uncertainty about the future of overseas markets and cheap imports.
The hard lesson from this crisis for our food supply has been its vulnerability to shocks in the logistics supply chain, dependence on overseas food production and its fragility induced by years of depressed farmer incomes. Covid-19 has brought the crisis to a head and threatens to do long-term damage to rural communities.
Plaid Cymru has a long-standing commitment to addressing the crisis in the food industry in Wales, beginning with a strong local procurement policy. With some councils in Wales procuring school dinner basics such as potatoes and bread from Rochdale and Liverpool, we urgently need to address the loss of millions of pounds out of the Welsh economy and ensure local producers and enterprises are not overlooked.
Building a comprehensive food industry means not only backing our farmers but also focusing anew on developing processing capabilities to add value to our raw materials such as meat and milk. The loss of abattoirs and dairy processing plants in recent years have meant hundreds of jobs lost, thousands of food miles added and primary food producers even more exposed to global markets.
By supporting the development of local processing capabilities, we can help build a stronger local economy where people can buy local produce more directly. This would help decentralise food production and embody the ambitions of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act of a more sustainable Wales.
Welsh agriculture is the economic backbone of rural communities and market towns, playing a vital role in the broader economy with exports of half a billion pounds in 2018 and supports the Welsh food and drink sector which employs over 240,000 workers. It is clear therefore that financial support for agriculture is both legitimate and urgently needed to support farms through the crisis to help maintain production capacity as well as the vitality of our rural areas.
Plaid Cymru will continue to work with the farming unions and rural enterprises to support agriculture through this crisis and the development of a long-term food strategy which would emphasise local procurement to support the local economy, while encouraging sustainable and fair trade.
With scenes of unharvested crops and farmers pouring milk down the drain because of lack of demand now a daily sight in Wales, we must remember that these are not just problems caused by the pandemic but by a failing food supply model. For a better, fairer and resilient future we can start by buying local Welsh produce and putting our communities at the heart of our food supply and economic recovery.
Ben Lake is Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion and environment food and rural affairs spokesperson. Llyr Gruffydd is an Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Member for North Wales and shadow minister for environment & rural affairs.