It wasn’t meant to be like this: rationing is back, now being introduced in some supermarkets for fruits and vegetables. Typically, the public debate remains stuck on Brexit – or “Vegxit”. But this is much more to do with cold weather in farming regions, poor harvests in North Africa and Spain, as well as continued high energy costs.
If public expectations are that they should be able to eat tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in February, something previous generations could barely imagine, it is perhaps understandable that logistics along an attenuated supply chain will play a major part. Yet the fact that this has happened during a relatively normal period, without a pandemic or general strike, highlights once again that the model on which successive governments have based their food and farming strategies is now deeply flawed.
At the heart of the problem is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) still in the grip of the Green Blob and wholly uninterested in the messy business of producing food. The paradigm has shifted but the civil servants haven’t. Defra’s preoccupation remains “sustainability” and environmental management – seemingly denying that large quantities of food can be produced while maintaining high environmental standards.
In fact, in many respects, a regeneratively farmed environment can be better for biodiversity than “rewilded” land. Nevertheless, thanks to net zero targets, acres of productive land continue to be given over to solar farms, while the nation’s roofs remain relatively unpanelled. Trees are favored in place of crops and animals. The Government’s flagship Environmental Land Management scheme has a bias towards cutting production. All of which won’t be much use if our people go hungry.
It’s not that there is any lack of vision around, just that the policy-makers have not allowed it to inform their decisions, sticking rigidly to the land-sparing rather than land-sharing approach of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
We need to put our better land back into vegetables and fruit orchards, by getting our farmers off the hamster wheel of growing cereals to pump into cattle, pigs and poultry, with relatively inefficient conversion rates from grain to meat. We need to invest in new technologies such as insect farming to provide the feedstocks for pigs and poultry, and nudge consumer demand towards grass-fed meat and milk.
And we need to stop outsourcing our glasshouse vegetable production to the Spanish and the Dutch by building our own. But this shift in land use will not happen without incentives. And farmers, whose confidence in the Government’s agricultural policy has plummeted, need to feel more confident that they will be supported before they invest.
Instead, every obstacle is placed in the way of any attempt to change and diversify. Previous generations tended to fund farm infrastructure by selling off properties, but the current lack of any taper relief during a period of high inflation, and lack of rollover relief, renders this option unaffordable. Nor has there been much sign of efforts to cut the bureaucratic burden on farmers to counteract problems that might have arisen since Brexit. As Clarkson’s Farm 2 has recently shown, humorously but insightfully, the bonfire of red tape and planning legislation that farming entrepreneurs badly need still hasn’t happened.
It was to be hoped that Covid and then Ukraine would result in a new focus on food resilience and security. But the warnings have not been heeded; there has been paralysis in Whitehall, and now shoppers are seeing higher costs and rationing. Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Defra, has to rise to the challenge quickly and recognize that the plans her department has served up so far are not going to keep our supermarket shelves anywhere near full.
Aside from the politics, deep down, perhaps the lack of February tomatoes in the shops should also be taken as a wake-up call to us all that, if we are to keep within planetary boundaries, we need to make more effort to eat seasonally produce.
Jamie Blackett farms in Dumfriesshire and is the author of ‘Red Rag to a Bull’ and ‘Land of Milk and Honey’