Farming Minister David Heath recently said spiralling costs could force a “dig for survival”. The warning arose as new figures showed fruit prices are more than 10% higher than last year with vegetable costs up 6.7%.
Mr Heath said the UK could no longer rely on food imports and needed to strive for a greater level of self sufficiency. “With an increasing population, increasing demand not just in this country but across the world, we are going to have to increase food production,” he said. “We made a huge mistake a few years ago when the idea got around that we didn’t need to produce in the agricultural sector any more, that we would be able to buy our way through whatever was necessary to feed the country.”
For some time now, there have been calls on the government to reverse our dependence on food imports. According to Defra, our self-sufficiency in indigenous food types is calculated to be just over 70%. In all food types, the figure has fallen from 80% to around 60% over the past three decades. Actually, the figures are probably worse, since they do not take account of the dependency on imported inputs such as energy, animal feed, fertiliser and machinery. Mr Heath implies that a relatively prosperous country like ours should not be sitting back and expecting the rest of the world to feed its people.
However, his remarks represent a definite change of tack for the government. Up until now, ministers have been insisting that food security should be based on international trade and that any striving for self-sufficiency could put us on the slippery slope to protectionism. In a government-sponsored document entitled “Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming”, published in January 2011, self-sufficiency is clearly derided as an impediment to economic growth and free trade: “Food security is best served by fair and fully functioning markets and by liberalised global trade arrangements, not by policies to promote self-sufficiency. … This report rejects food self-sufficiency as a viable option for nations to contribute to global food security, but stresses the importance of crafting food system governance to maximise the benefits of globalisation and to ensure that they are distributed fairly.”
Our farmers complain that UK production costs are uncompetitively high owing to excessive taxation (especially petrol taxes) and stringent regulation. They have also been hit by three consecutive bad winters. Unfortunately for them, retailers are doing what retailers have to do, i.e. they are using cheap imports to drive down prices.
Apart from anything else, using imports as a substitute for home-grown produce is a ridiculous waste of potential. Mr Heath’s government colleagues have a key role to play here. It may or may not be deemed protectionist, but the constraints of taxation, regulation and competitive barriers must be addressed before too many more UK producers feel they cannot compete and give up their businesses. Otherwise, our farmers will not be digging for survival – they will be digging their own graves.