If only the Ukraine war came to an end. If only energy prices dropped. If only Covid’s long tail finally dwindled away. Then, at last, food price inflation would be vanquished. It’s certainly true that if and when these things happen the rate at which food prices are increasing, currently at 5.9% and rising, should ease. It’s worth noting that there is also significant food price inflation across the EU right now. In Belgium it’s 5.3%, in Germany it’s 6.2% and in Greece it’s a whacking 8.1%.
So we’re the same as everywhere else. Except we’re not. For underlying all those short-term issues, is a much longer term systemic issue peculiar to the UK; one which this government seems determined to ignore. A decade ago, I was writing Greedy Man In A Hungry World, my book about food sustainability and whether it had much to do with middle-class obsessions with small-scale agriculture, organics and localism (spoiler: it doesn’t). I argued then that massive damage had been done to the UK’s agricultural base by the pursuit of cheap food by any means.
I am not, by reflex, anti-supermarket. Mass retail has gifted us an awful lot. But there’s also no doubt that the huge purchasing power of these corporate behemoths has undermined farming’s viability. In 2012 we produced only 60% of the food we ate, nearer 50% after exports, and down from the high 70s in the 1990s, and UK farmers were quitting the business. The big retailers assumed they could fill the gaps by buying from abroad, despite the fact that emerging economies like China and India were now competing with us.
I argued then that if we didn’t start paying a little more for our food to help improve our self-sufficiency, we would end up paying substantially more in the future when an external shock restricted our supply from overseas. Cut to 2022. Nothing has changed. We still only produce 60% of what we consume. Exports have dropped slightly but only because of that shock, which turned out to be self-inflicted: Brexit. We no longer have enough workers to harvest all our crops. Some rot in the fields, because of Brexit. We do not have enough meat processors, meaning pigs are being culled without going into the food chain, because of Brexit. Last month Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for imaginary Brexit opportunities, announced the UK would continue to suspend the introduction of checks on food coming into the country, checks that protect the very integrity of food supply, because of Brexit.
If we produced more of our own food, all of this would be less of a problem, but we don’t. And what is the government doing to sort that? Right now, nothing. In the flawed, Henry Dimbleby-led national food strategy there was next to nothing on food production (though instead of proposing that the root causes of poverty be dealt with, it suggested GPs prescribe fresh fruit). According to sources close to Defra, the delays to the long-awaited white paper on the UK’s food supply were caused by arguments over whether any food production targets should be included.
Food inflation in France is lower, at 3.8%. France also happens to be self-sufficient in food. Last month, the president of NFU Scotland, Martin Kennedy, warned that the UK is on the verge of a food security crisis not seen since the second world war. We need to support domestic food production, he said, “or run the risk of not having domestic production to support”. Don’t want to take my word for it? Take his. When it comes to keeping the nation fed, we are now in serious trouble.