Panglossian views are not restricted to the political Pollyanna

The transport secretary’s view of post-Brexit food supply is reason to panic, says David Burrows.

The EU has led UK food and environment policy for the past 43 years. Brexit therefore offers an opportunity to rip things up and start again, and who better to lead us into this new era of secure, safe, healthy and sustainable food supply than Chris Grayling?

When asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr what would happen should there be no deal in place and food prices rocket under World Trade Organization tariffs, the transport secretary (!) said simply: “What we will do is we will grow more here and buy more from around the world.” He could well have preceded this with a “Well … duh.”

A few billion quid freed up from subsidies, chlorine-washed chicken by the cartload, and there’s no need to listen to all those doom-mongers (experts) on food and farming policy. They think the government is sleepwalking into a crisis of insecure, unsafe and expensive food after Brexit, but they need to wake up … and start digging.

A few months back, Michael Gove, Grayling’s cabinet colleague and fellow Leave Luvvie, may have cheered at the simplicity of it all. Not any more. The UK is 30 or 40 years away from the “fundamental eradication of soil fertility”, the environment secretary warned last week (Gove is quite the eco-warrior these days). “Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU,” he explained, “but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

So in other words we’ll have nowhere to dig. Still, three decades is a wee while away so for the time being there’s nothing to worry about. Tractors at the ready then, Chris? Not quite. Before then – well before then, as in 2018 – there is the tiny issue of who will do the digging (as well as the picking, the packing, the processing, the stocking and the serving).

A survey published by the National Farmers’ Union last week showed that fruit and veg farms were short of nearly a third of their workers in September. Most alarming was the fact the returnee rate had fallen from 65% in January to 16%. The union warned the government to expect serious disruption in the horticulture sector as early as next year.

It’s worth noting that the premonition came in the same week that a number of food businesses made significant and long overdue commitments to increase the amount of vegetables they sell and serve. Sodexo wants to up its procurement of veg by 10% by the end of the decade, but at the moment this isn’t likely to be British produce.

Retail, hospitality and food manufacturing sectors have all been ringing similar alarm bells about labour, prices and supply shortages, but ministers appear content to dig a hole and sit with their hands over their ears shouting: “La, la, la, we can’t hear you,” or to defer any questions to the Department for Transport.

Press officers at DEFRA appear to be taking the same approach (this could be because they have their own labour shortage issues, of course). The Print inquired about the accuracy of an article in the Ends Report on October 10th that the 25-year food and farming plan has been “scrapped”. Two weeks on and there has been no reply.

Freedom from the shackles of the Common Agricultural Policy, and the 4,000-plus regulations on everything from food labelling to animal welfare, presents opportunities galore – most notably, it’s a chance to align food production policies with nutritional ones.

The bigger question therefore is not by whom, where or how food is produced, but what is produced. As Prof Jack Winkler noted in a piece for Footprint, the UK and Europe’s policies on sugar are a contradictory mess, so it would be revolutionary to turn subsidies on their head so that they favour healthy food.

Others have begun to make the link between food and farming policies and health. "Food systems are making us sick," explained Cecilia Rocha last month as she launched a new report for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems detailing the "staggering" health cost of industrial food and farming. "Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health."

Last week, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) offered an even more bleak analysis of where we are in the UK: high streets heavy with fast-food chains; people microwaving their suppers or ordering takeaways from their smartphones; a £16 billion healthcare bill thanks to an overweight and obese population.

Contrary to Grayling’s assertions, “no deal” could change what is available on shelves dramatically, warned Sue Pritchard, the director of the RSA’s newly created commission on food farming and the countryside. Are Gove or Grayling aware that just of the 28 portions of fruit and veg eaten in the UK each week are grown in Britain with British or non-EU labour?

The findings certainly didn’t appear to bother Gove as he was quizzed on Wednesday by the House of Lords EU energy and environment subcommittee. Once again, the environment secretary presented his romantic post-Brexit vision in which environmental standards and productivity rise hand-in-hand. Is that even possible, wondered Lord Krebs (an expert in these things), as he pressed our political Pollyanna on another well-crafted but contradictory statement?

Gove did his best to distract from such detail, sticking firmly with the bigger picture. He talked of farms run by artificial intelligence and animals living in “enlightened” conditions. There won’t be chlorine-washed chicken on his watch. How about food price rises?

Hmmm. Well. Ummm. Tariffs are not the only factor that will have an impact, he said, declining to offer any forecasts lest he offend those who had already done so. “I wouldn’t want to put my name or my department’s name against any specific prediction.” There was no mention of the food price analysis that has reportedly been suppressed.

Of note, at this juncture, is DEFRA’s response to appeals for the report to be published: “We recognise that there is a public interest in disclosure of information concerning the increase in food prices in the run-up to the UK leaving the European Union and the first five years after the UK’s departure. However, there is a strong public interest in withholding the information, in this instance.”

The mastery of contradiction appears to be filtering down to the far reaches of DEFRA HQ. But it isn’t the government that is mixing its messages or confusing matters, said Gove. No siree, it’s the media. “I used to be a journalist … sometimes you have to simplify and exaggerate.”

Bad headlines sell papers, but this is a government that always wants to look on the bright side – which brings us to a final point on food security. In February the Climate Change Committee warned that climate change poses significant risks to food security, yet at present “there is no co-ordinated national approach to ensure the resilience of the UK food system”. The government’s response was to reach for the rose-tinted spectacles and take the “optimistic view” that the supply chain has done OK so far.

The Print wonders if the food industry feels the same way. To suggest the government hasn’t got a clue regarding food policy might soon be an understatement. Perhaps that’s why it has been left to the transport secretary.

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