Food Security

Does the UK really need a farming industry?

Leaked emails to the Chancellor from senior Government adviser Dr Tim Leunig say that the food sector is “not critically important” to the country’s economy, and that agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”.

The email also claimed that ministers could model Singapore which is ‘rich without having its own agricultural sector’.  That was at the beginning of March. Since then, events have exposed this sort of nonsense that sees everything in numbers and attributes no value to the well-being of citizens particularly when things go wrong.

If the Covid-19 crisis has taught us anything it is that having a robust domestic agricultural industry is essential to our food security.

The delays at internal EU borders caused by EU Member States that are part of Schengen re-introducing border controls have inadvertently slowed freight traffic. In reality this is a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things and, as Member States get organised, the green channels to allow freight to move without delay are functioning in most cases. Still, the 15 minute or so delays at borders are causing long tailbacks. Brexiteers take note!

The much bigger issue is how countries and global markets respond. The answer is that they will, naturally, look after themselves first.

A good illustration of this is the way that Russia temporarily lifted restrictions for imports of essential goods, including customs restrictions and a zero-customs duty rate for some items. The Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin recognised that “many European countries now see feverish demand for food because of the spread of coronavirus…” and said that they will “continue to do everything… so that the shops do not have empty shelves.”

This competition for resources when the chips are down is inevitable and will be in addition to countries retaining resources to feed their own if needed. We simply cannot rely on others to feed us in times of crisis.

We can’t have a domestic agriculture policy that does not have food production and (if not self-sufficiency) at least a degree of food security at its very heart. It must also recognise that this can’t be paid for from the marketplace alone; it has to be subsidised.

And yet, the current UK Agriculture Bill makes scant reference to food, and EU policy needs to guard against going down the same erroneous path. We can not have government advisers who believe that we can base the entire economy on some extreme free trade model founded on the false premise that we can always buy what we need from somewhere else and that we don’t need farmers. Of course we do!

About the author

Peter Hardwick is Trade Policy Adviser at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and is one of the UK’s leading experts in both domestic and international trade