Those who advocate a free trade deal with the US claiming that it will lower food prices are putting the cart before the horse. We don’t need free trade – we need a strategy for food production, and its distribution…
Without a regular supply of food human beings starve, and if that supply is completely cut off, they die. Nations too, without a secure supply produced domestically, or acquired through trade with other nations, cannot survive. Hence the popularity of sanctions and blockade as a means for governments to wage war by other means against their enemies, for example against the Soviet Union in its early days or, more recently, against Cuba.
But our starting point is not trade: it is production. Without agricultural production, and the industries that turn materials from the land and the sea into edible products and deliver them to the consumer at home or abroad, there are no goods to trade, whatever the terms of that trade may be.
What is the state of our agricultural production? The UK is around 62 per cent self-sufficient in all foods and 75 per cent in “indigenous type food” but our self-sufficiency has been declining over the past thirty years, and is still falling. It is worth looking at these figures in more detail.
We are more or less self-sufficient, or produce surpluses for export in many areas: chicken, beef and lamb, milk and eggs, and cereals. But we produce much less of the pork and vegetables we consume at home, and only 16 per cent of the amount of fruit we ate in 2019.
Flown round the world
Is this because our tastes have changed and we now prefer to eat exotic fruit flown halfway round the world? Or is it because the EU forced British growers to grub up two-thirds of our apple orchards? Of the counties which grew dessert, cooking and cider apples, Kent has lost 85 per cent of its orchards over the past 50 years, Herefordshire has just 10 per cent left and Devon has lost 90 per cent since the Second World War. Not to mention the decline in fishing.
To feed large modern populations requires the development of scientific, large-scale methods of food production. It is a huge industry, going beyond the farms where animals are reared and crops raised to encompass slaughterhouses, warehouses and food processing plants, to say nothing of those who work to transport, sell and distribute food, and those in the service industries that feed us directly.
In our universities and research institutes, food science brings together elements of the engineering, biological and physical sciences, to understand and develop food production. It draws on agriculture, nutrition, food safety, food processing and behavioural science.
The food industry more generally is a large and important part of the economy, employing 4.1 million workers, and making up £120.2 billion or 9.4 per cent of Gross Value Added in 2018. Food manufacturing, processing and preparation is less the concern of small “artisanal” producers and more that of huge concerns, many foreign-owned.
Six of the top 30 UK food companies have US owners, most famously Kraft, which bought Cadbury’s in 2010. McCormick & Co took over Reckitt Benckiser in 2017 and in the same year Post Holdings acquired Weetabix from its previous Chinese owners.
A further three are Irish owned, and one of our major biscuit brands is owned by a Turkish company, Yildiz. Even small producers and new arrivals are, if attractive, quickly snapped up. Gin producer Sipsmith is owned by the Japanese giant Suntory.
Food distribution and sale is concentrated in the hands of the big four supermarket chains Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, plus the German budget chains of Aldi and Lidl. Together with the Coop and Waitrose, they account for over 90 per cent of grocery sales.
Lack of control of our food industry is a major obstacle to establishing a coherent food strategy on the basis of which trade agreements could be examined and agreed, amended or rejected.
Those who have recently become so exercised about the prospect of the United States exporting chicken washed with a chlorine solution to Britain have missed the point in so many ways. Chlorine has been used for many years to safeguard all but “organically” produced salads, fruit and vegetables, worldwide, including in the EU, against microbial infections such as norovirus, whose consequences can be serious and sometimes fatal.
Advances in food safety and the application of science to poultry rearing turned chicken from a luxury into a generally affordable food. Those who make such a meal of this practise the sort of snobbery that believes that anything made available for mass consumption is by its very nature bad – a way of thinking that is so much a part of the pseudo-environmentalist movement.
Many who shout loudly about food for mass consumption are extremely selective in the causes they take up. We heard little from them about animal welfare in European Union member states over the years, about the mass transport of livestock the length and breadth of the EU, and beyond, or about food safety scandals such as when, in 2013, products imported from EU countries as beef were found to contain horsemeat.
Horses slaughtered in Romanian and Polish slaughterhouses were transported to the Netherlands, relabelled as beef, and then included in products such as burgers and meatballs sold in Britain and Ireland.
‘Lack of control of our food industry is a major obstacle to establishing a coherent food strategy...’
The struggle for palatable, affordable, unadulterated food has been central to the survival of the British working class. British capitalists proletarianised the land early on. Unlike on the continent, where both a peasantry and a landed feudal class persisted, in Britain workers were driven from the countryside by enclosures to form the new working class in the towns, while those who remained in the countryside were landless labourers.
Unlike on the Continent, the more far-sighted landed aristocracy turned themselves into a part of the industrial bourgeoisie, becoming factory owners themselves or marrying into the newly wealthy families.
We understand how capitalism, left unchecked, would gladly have kept us at the barest minimum necessary for us to sustain our existence while remaining productive. We have had nigh-on two centuries’ experience of free trade.
It was in the name of free trade the Manchester liberals campaigned against the Corn Laws. But those same liberals presided over the rampant adulteration of workers’ food in the 19th century.
There was alum in bread; strychnine and copper in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider.
The Chartists had the measure of the free traders, who tried to enlist the support of the working class for cheap bread and the repeal of the Corn Laws, when all they were after was an excuse to lower wages.
Despite the low standard of debate in parliament, for the first time for nearly 50 years it can actually debate trade deals. But the question of Britain’s trade deals are too important to be entrusted to MPs, many of whom spent four years trying to sabotage Brexit. The debate about Britain’s food, the trade deals we strike, with whom and on what terms, are a matter for us all.
The EU we left was the embodiment of free trade principle: every commodity, labour included, was available to be shifted across the world, in the pursuit of profit. Now we can put behind us the anarchy of food production represented by butter mountains, milk and wine lakes, or set-aside, and the crazy logic under which farmers were paid not to grow crops.
Planning for production is desperately needed. An independent Britain can do so much better than we did when in the EU, ensuring a reliable supply of affordable, nutritious, cruelty-free food for us all.