Agromenes: The terrible warnings which must make us take food self-sufficiency seriously again

Country Life's agriculture columnist Agromenes on why we need to learn the lessons of the tragic events of the last couple of years.

The utterly dreadful news from Ukraine has rightly concentrated on the bravery and spirit of her people, the remarkable leadership of their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the sheer wickedness of Vladimir Putin. The threat of nuclear weapons and the worldwide efforts to counter the Russian invasion have, rightly, taken precedence over computing the effect on all our lives from the crippling of one of the world’s largest wheat producers.

The Ukraine is the fifth largest wheat exporter, responsible for 9% of global market share. Even before these terrible events, world grain stocks were forecast to be at a nine-year low, so the effect on supply and consumer prices is likely to be very serious indeed.

Yet, beyond these specifics, the effects of Putin’s war, coming so soon after the disruption caused by the pandemic, highlights the fragility of our food supplies. We have taken our supply chains for granted and grown comfortable in the belief that we will always be able to procure from somewhere. We felt there was no need to encourage home production, but it had not always been so.

Back in 1975, Agriculture Minister Fred Peart called his white paper Food from our own Resources and he committed the Government to supporting British agricultural production. It was a phrase wholly in keeping with Labour’s post-war farming policy initiated by the great Tom Williams. Indeed, it characterised the attitude of both major political parties.

“The pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine have shown how vulnerable Britain is, how fragile are our supply chains and how easily world demand for food can overtake supply”

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This consensus was torn apart when Tony Blair abolished the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2001 and refused even to keep agriculture in the replacement department’s title. It was so different from Ted Heath’s decision 30 years earlier when reforming ministries into departments. Sensibly, he listened to the advice of Farming Minister Jim Prior and didn’t change MAFF into a Department. He retained the title of Ministry, so farmers recognised they were not being sidelined, but would have the support of the Ministry first established in 1889.

It was left to David Miliband, as Defra Secretary, finally to kill off the political consensus by declaring that food security was no longer a priority. His dismissive view became almost universal and an essentially urban media began to assume that the days of food shortage, at least for rich countries, were over.

Covid started to change that view and, for many, the invasion of Ukraine finally put paid to the idea that feeding people is not an issue of national security. Yet, even as that simple concern is borne in upon the population at large, the Government continues to act as if there are more important priorities. As we move from EU production subsidies to Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS), ministers refuse to state that producing food is the most important public good delivered by farmers. Food security, therefore, remains subservient to other concerns.

We see that in every trade agreement the UK has sought: farmers are always left unprotected from unfair competition from countries that do not meet the same high standards that we ask of British producers. It’s seen, too, in the post-Brexit arrangements for products such as sugar, where heavily subsidised foreign competitors can increasingly take on UK farmers, yet continue to ignore the environmental rules we demand here.

Surely, all of us should take seriously these two terrible warnings. The pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine have shown how vulnerable Britain is, how fragile are our supply chains and how easily world demand for food can overtake supply. Governments need to remember they don’t last long if their people aren’t fed.