“The UK has voted to leave the European Union” Time to take Stock
Last week BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme began to investigate the potential impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU on our food industry. It is, in fact, quite astonishing to me that food and farming formed so little of the national debate in the run-up to the Referendum. Even if such issues do not capture the popular imagination in the way that the economy and immigration might, it is still pretty odd that the subject did not appear more widely in the intellectual, academic and specialist debates that ran alongside the mainstream messages.
When I was younger, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was a big news item, with stories of French farmers benefiting disproportionately and the cultural and economic history of mainland European farming, frequently rooted in largely pre-war agricultural and rural economies, (that seemed so archaic compared to our move to factory and industrial scale farming – if we only knew) – we shook our heads in dismay at butter mountains and wine lakes – of waste and anti free-market subsidies, straight bananas and curved cucumbers. Fishing, too, was in the headlines with Cod Wars, European quotas and incursions into our territorial waters. Then it seemed to go a bit quiet. Food was plentiful and no longer politics.
As the debate raged about our exiting or remaining in the EU, food still didn’t seem to feature, even though food is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry and is now enmeshed with Europe’s in ways most people cannot imagine. Through convenience food production, farming subsidies, regulation, animal welfare (or lack of it), fishing (still a source of much anger for many), complex trade and production relationships and our straight forward love of European and International Foods, the lines that separate are blurred at best.
The Food Programme was, it seems to me, the first real attempt to start to discuss this in the mainstream media, albeit after the event. I listened with some trepidation; bring on the handwringing I thought. The decision has been made to leave, it cannot be unmade, and although there is much to discuss, agree, visualise and reconcile about the future the UK has outside the EU, the doom-mongering and pessimism has been wearing me down. Perhaps, just perhaps, this momentous decision will enable us, or even force us, to take a long hard look at the food industry in the UK. Because, there is much that is wrong with it.
Don’t misunderstand me – I know we feed an awful lot people in this country on mainly good quality, plentiful food that is, relatively, cheap. No one is starving in this country (I know there social and economic impacts that make this not entirely true – but we no longer have famines as we did throughout history). There is though a cost – economic, cultural and in the longer-term to our health and wellbeing – of the mass, large-scale industrialisation of food. Before you roll your eyes to the ceiling, I am not advocating a Prince Charlesesque return to some bucolic, organic, chemical-free food world in which we all have our own cow and half a dozen chickens, bartering our free-range eggs for next door’s organic turnips. I am not. But, it is time to take stock.
I understand that leaving the UK will have an impact, I am not naïve – but there are major questions to be confronted about the economic viability (and, mostly unsaid, the efficiency and innovation) of our farming industry. But how about we take control, instead of weeping into our tea and wailing about the loss of EU money (or our money back from the EU depending on your perspective). Instead, let us examine what EU subsidies achieve for our farmers and why it is necessary. Let us have a national debate about what our indigenous farming industry should look like and if, to achieve that, it requires state subsidy. Let us understand why, if it does, and what needs to be done to reduce that dependence or, if not, to collectively agree that we should subsidise and support our farmers, or certain kinds of farming or our fishermen and let us put in place a domestic agricultural/fisheries policy that will help us achieve this. It isn’t as simple as EU funding or no funding. That is a political decision that needs to taken. (There in, of course lies a bit of a rub, as our political leaders balked at the voice of the people, realised they had no plan B and so abdicated responsibility in all quarters and scattered like rats, but that is for another debate).
Perhaps we can now look seriously at our food resilience – the UK is barely self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs. Food security matters a good deal. Brexit gives us an opportunity to look at the structure of our food industry in the round, from farm to table. We can import food from Europe still, and from the rest of the world. If we need key products – we do not need to erect trade tariffs. I keep hearing that without the EU we will need to revert to WTO tariffs, but do we? How about we negotiate directly and reciprocally with countries to remove tariffs rather than raise them? The Food Programme suggested that we pay a 35% tariff on sugar via the EU, let us decide if this is what we want – indeed why on earth would we make food more expensive for ourselves? we are not protecting an indigenous sugar industry after all. Let us agree with sugar supplying countries to trade with no or lower tariffs. No one seems able to tell me why this should be impossible to achieve. Yes, maybe our Parmesan will be a few pence more if the EU insists on tariffs, or maybe not, but you can be sure of one thing, Italy will not stop exporting their cheese to us.
The UK, indeed much of humankind, has traded food globally, across countries, seas and continents for millennia, are we really suggesting that because we have been part of the EU since 1973, we are no longer capable of doing so? Are we seriously to believe that without the regulation of the EU and the sclerotic trade negotiations that it undertakes, we will need to revert to a diet of Spam and Angel Delight, powdered egg and boiled ham? Come on.
Perhaps Brexit will give us a chance to examine closely our commitment to (and the affordability of) increasing local and national production, to buying closer to home, to reducing our dependence on the sorts of manufactured and processed foods that mean the opaque production methods and sourcing in a border-free Europe leaves us unable to tell if we are eating beef or horse, pig or mechanically-recovered chicken. Perhaps we can begin to imagine a new, energetic, progressive domestic food industry, one that supports indigenous producers, enables fishing and farming to provide for our needs and provides a fair living for those that work in those industries.
I hear the constant refrain that should we wish to produce more we must have free movement of labour as so much of our agricultural and horticultural industries depends on EU workers. Do you know what? fine, let’s offer easy and quick visas online to anyone who wants to come to (or stay in) the UK post-Brexit to work in agriculture, if we need them to help increase and refocus our domestic food industry then they are key workers, so invite them in. If 600,000 people work in our restaurants, pubs, cafes and hotels and locals won’t, grant visas for the hospitality industry. I really struggle to see why this concept seems so difficult for so many to comprehend.
There is no doubt that leaving the UK has divided the nation, but we need to crack on. Food has not had the profile in this debate that it warrants, the BBC Food Programme aside, I can’t think of any mainstream debates on the issue. Perhaps we should see our leaving the EU as a once in a lifetime opportunity to look at what has happened to the UK food industry to farming and to fishing since the war, to take stock and to develop a post EU vision, one that is dynamic, progressive and outward looking, that makes clear our objectives and which retains an integrity and a set of core values about quality, provenance and welfare. It is true that there may no longer be the expertise at the heart of government to lead from the front on this, but I am sure there are sufficient people within the industry that have the passion, the foresight and the expertise to bring this together.
Surely none of this is beyond the wit of a country which is the 5th largest economy in the world with a history of global trade, invention and innovation? Let’s get a bloody grip.