OPINION: We'd have run out of food for 2020 by now if we didn't use imported goods


The UK imports around 400,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes each year from countries such as The Netherlands

The UK imports around 400,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes each year from countries such as The Netherlands


Columnist Andy Newman says we need to swallow our pride if we think we can just rely on food produced in the UK

It is now nearly six months since those dark days at the start of the Covid crisis, when many people had very real concerns about how they were going to feed their families during lockdown. We genuinely didn’t know if our food production and distribution system was going to be able to cope.

We rightly stood and clapped NHS workers, but that those toiling away to keep us fed also deserve our gratitude. Whatever other parts of the UK’s infrastructure struggled, there was always food on the shelves, and in the thousands of vans delivering it to our door. Our farmers, producers, distributors and retailers all stepped up to the plate when needed.

But last Friday we were reminded that we are very far from being self-sufficient as a nation when it comes to feeding ourselves. August 21 was the date that, if we were relying solely on food produced in the UK, we would have run out. Without imports, we would have nothing to eat for the rest of the year.

You see, the fact that we continued to have food on the table throughout lockdown is not just a British achievement.

Even as we in the UK looked on in horror at the toll the pandemic was taking in Italy, truck drivers from that country were driving to Norwich every day with lorries loaded with all sorts of produce. When they got to the Norfolk distribution centres they weren’t even allowed to get out of their vehicles; they sat there while unloading took place, and then drove straight back to the continent. And because of them, and many like them, the shelves remained stocked.

I mention this because there is a significant under-current of British exceptionalism around, which needs to be debunked. The sense that we don’t need the rest of the world, or at any rate ‘they need us more than we need them’ is simply nonsense. Whatever political and regulatory structures we end up with, we are inter-dependent, not just for the luxuries, but in order to survive.

Of course, we could be doing more to try and achieve a higher level of food self-sufficiency, but even at its peak 40 years ago we only managed to get to 75 per cent – which means even then we were reliant on imports for a quarter of everything we ate.

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Let’s not forget also that increasing food production means we would have to farm more intensively, and work our limited land supply even harder. How does that square with the commitment to respect the environment and be better guardians of the countryside?

The Covid crisis may have shone the spotlight on our food security, but the truth is that in good times and bad, we need to have a free-flowing trading relationship with other countries if we are not to go hungry. Pretending that this is not true, invoking some strange and very rose-tinted wartime spirit and hoping everything will be alright just doesn’t cut it.

If so-called independence means we have to starve, that is not a price worth paying.

There is actually nothing wrong in being dependent on imports for a proportion of what we eat. It’s a function of the inter-connected world in which we live, and it’s a fact of life that almost every nation on earth needs imports, whether of food, energy or other vital commodities.

It is for this reason that the most prosperous countries are those which embrace open trade, and the least successful tend to be those which adopt a protectionist approach in the misguided hope that this will somehow boost domestic production and increase self-sufficiency. Experience teaches us that this simply doesn’t happen.

Here in Norfolk we produce about a tenth of the nation’s food, which makes us a net exporter as a county; in other areas (such as energy) we are a net importer. All that means is that we are playing to our strengths, and the fact that when you turn on your TV the power to run it is coming from a Suffolk nuclear power plant or a gas-fired power station in Yorkshire is neither here nor there.

If we are happy that this happens between regions in the UK, why do some people have a problem accepting it can happen between different countries as well? As the lockdown showed, even in the most adverse situations the system doesn’t break down. It has served us well for decades.

The thing which threatens our food supply is not the coronavirus, it is isolating ourselves and convincing ourselves we don’t need the rest of the world.

That is sheer stupidity – and there is no vaccine for that.

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