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The UK: Health, Wealth and Food Supplies
23 Jun, 2020

Food. We all need it. No-one can live without it. Sufficiency of it brings peace and productivity. Deficiency leads to weakness, illness and lower productivity, alongside a greater reliance on health services, says Salli Martlew, from our Companion Branch in South & West Yorkshire.

The kinks and distortions in supply and demand for food are not new. But then came CoVID-19. I have heard the pandemic described as the Great Magnifier. All that was there before, good or bad, is now magnified.

In our food chain, what is now under the microscope?

  • Inequalities of wealth skewing demand
  • Market dominance by certain sellers pushing some producers to the edge
  • Indifference to the carbon impact all along the food chain
  • Low pay of those, especially minorities, who cut, pick, harvest the food from the ground and put it on our shelves.

None of these is new, but the current crisis magnifies them. The government says we have 1.5 million in need of food help in the UK. The Food Foundation now puts the figure at nearer 3 million.

We are all more acutely aware of the links in the chain that puts food on our table, and how, when those links are strained to breaking point and go unrepaired, families go without. How can we use the new attention this crisis has put on these issues to help each one of us – consumer, producer, seller, regulator, governor – reimagine our own roles and so remake the food system so it does more for health equity and our planet?

Britons characteristically look to the World Wars of last century for inspiration, and in this case, there is something we can learn from those crises. The wars exposed significant malnutrition across the nation. Good and plentiful food was needed for those on the front line, but also for those back home working to support them. This brought about the 1940 Food Plan where coupons ensured everyone had access to nutrition and health through good food and a balanced diet.

That was a crisis of another order of magnitude and from a starting point without the technology and connections we now take for granted. But while we are facing CoVID with the benefits of time and history, there are other dynamics at play - threats that we all talked about before we knew where Wuhan was: Climate Change and Brexit.

Climate change: there is no scientific debate any longer. The world will experience – and is already experiencing – dramatic changes in weather patterns and therefore food production. Here in the UK, we have seen more unstable and less reliable weather; in the past year great swings from the wettest winter in memory, to now when we have one of the driest springs. The wet autumn and winter prevented the potato harvest being completed, with acres of potatoes eventually being ploughed in rather than harvested. This meant months of delay in drilling the following crop of cereals as well as a delay of several years before that soil can again be used to produce potatoes. We yet to see the impact, but a shortage of British-grown potatoes – mash, chips and roasties – will mean we have to import even more than we do now. And if you see soil-brown patches in those previously waterlogged fields, where wheat and barley are now growing, you will know that the harvest yields this year will be down on the usual and we need every grain.

Brexit: whatever the deal that is reached, or not, food supply chains will be affected. The Common Agricultural Policy, for all its flaws, aimed to encourage efficient food production in each of the member countries and an overall sufficiency for all. Currently the UK produces around 60% of its food. 30% comes from countries within the EU.

Tied in with free trade with the EU is the Free Movement of Labour. However, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board: “A shortage of appropriate labour could mean that higher wages and resulting increased cost of production would have a negative impact on the UK’s productivity and competitiveness. If this happened at the same time as the UK were to open up to free trade and new low-cost competition from emerging markets, some UK-based businesses may find it even harder to compete.” Any new barriers to getting low paid agricultural workers, or even better paid vets from the EU, would have a direct and immediate impact on food production across the country.

Generations are judged by how they respond to the crises of their times and by the world they pass on to their children. For their sake, for their future, we need to rethink our food system now.

  • Let us grow what we can eat and eat more locally.
  • Let us look after those who help to put food on our tables, wherever they were born.
  • Let us think long term about the climate and our environment, working with them rather than trying to control them.

We are living through a time of multiple crises – some of our own making, and some not. In the next months and years, we can put our technology, our knowledge, our skills and our land to use in the same way as we have been doing. Or we can remake our world, healthier.

Salli Martlew
South & West Yorkshire for Europe

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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