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The need for a new National Food Policy: food supply problems during national emergencies

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Whilst the present Covid-19 crisis pandemic is principally a medical and public health emergency, it has highlighted the crucial issue of maintaining Britain’s food supply. Problems with food supply not only pose a threat to public morale, but also to the legitimacy of the government. Before the introduction of social distancing measures and supermarket restrictions, many consumers chose to stockpile basic foods such as bread and meat and there has been tremendous demand for home delivery services. Concern has been expressed about a shortage of agricultural workers to assist with the production of horticultural crops and soft fruit. The idea of ensuring that the nation is supplied with an adequate supply of domestically produced nutritious food has attracted little attention. The lack of a coherent and integrated food policy is graphically illustrated in terms of the recent discussions about the future of agriculture which tend to assume that the country will always be able to rely on a readily available supply of imported food. Such an assumption is not necessarily convincing or as feasible as it might appear at first sight.

Historically the classic example of Britain’s abnormal dependence on imported food is illustrated by the situation which prevailed immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In spite of a series of measures, for example, the repeal of free trade in agricultural produce in 1931 and the establishment of milk, hops, potatoes and pig marketing boards, government efforts had done little to alleviate the county’s reliance on imported food. In fact the difficulty of being able to ensure that the population was adequately fed was actually much greater on the eve of Second World War than the First World War. In 1913 approximately 60 per cent of the country’s food requirements originated from overseas, whereas the corresponding figure in the late 1930s was in the region of 70 per cent. The need to expand domestic agricultural production was primarily a pragmatic response and in some senses a knee-jerk reaction to reduce Britain’s dependence on imported food. Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain was importing about 22 million tons of food a year which included cereals for animal feeding stuffs. This included about 70 per cent of its cereals, fats and cheese, in addition to about 50 per cent of its meat. Given that one of the main strategies of the Axis during the Battle of the Atlantic was to attack shipping transporting vitally essential food and other supplies to Britain, the country faced the possibility of food shortages thereby undermining morale. One of the lessons the country learnt from the experiences of wartime food shortage was the need to establish a long-term commitment to supporting agriculture in peace time as exemplified by the 1947 Agriculture Act. This legislation committed the state to ensuring stability via the introduction of guaranteed prices and promoting increased efficiency by offering a multitude of grants and subsidies to facilitate improvements in productivity, placing agriculture on more of a business footing.

Even in peace time, when the food supply systems are deemed to be more robust and immune from dislocations produced by military conflict, climate change and events such as the current pandemic pose a major challenge to Britain’s ability to ensure that the population is adequately fed. Weather-induced seasonal variations in food supply have been a recurring theme throughout history, often having profound consequences like famine and malnutrition for populations during periods when there is even a relatively small shortfall in supply. Periods of extreme weather, for instance droughts, may similarly disrupt agricultural production which eventually leads to considerably higher prices for basic foods such as bread and vegetables. In spite of the fact that disruptions to domestic food supply are generally quite minor, it is evident from the experiences of the 2018 drought and wet autumn and winter of 2019/20 winter that agricultural production and prices in Britain are still very much dependent on the weather. Fluctuations in food production will become even more pronounced with climate change. Ensuring an adequate food supply is considerably more challenging than many commentators and politicians are willing to acknowledge. Supermarkets dominate the market and often have long elongated international supply chains reliant on land, air and sea transportation. In peace time governments are invariably reluctant to introduce formal rationing restrictions similar to those introduced during the Second World War. One of the consequences of this is that food is rationed by price whereby the poor and low income members of society bear the brunt of these dislocations to food supply.

Unlike virtually all other commodities, demand for basic food is relatively inelastic in that the need for agricultural commodities remains relatively constant irrespective of changes in consumers’ incomes. In the industrialised nations of the world, consumers do not purchase more of the basic food ingredients when their living standards increase. They might spend more of their income on eating out, expensive exotic ingredients or foods that have been pre-prepared, but consumption of the basic foods does not change that dramatically in comparison with their expenditure on electrical goods, motor cars and holidays. In comparison during periods of economic downturn, food consumption holds up much better than for most other items of expenditure as illustrated by recent retail sales data. Such features are less evident in the non-industrialised world like sub-Saharan Africa, which have a recurring problem with ensuring an adequate supply of food for their own population and trying to alleviate malnutrition if not famine. It is these countries which produce much of the food which is exported to industrialised counties including Britain.

Ongoing discussions about trade deals and the future of agricultural support post-Brexit and the present Covid-19 pandemic reaffirm the need for Britain to development a coherent national food policy which also takes into consideration health, food safety, the economy and the environment. Assuming that other countries will always be able to provide a ready supply of agricultural commodities to Britain is ignoring the experiences of not only the First and Second World Wars, but also the disruption to international food supply which have characterised the post-war period. Certainly history suggests we need to develop a long-term sustainable food policy not in spite of Brexit and Covid-19, but because of the challenges they highlight.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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