“If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country”

I’ve never been a great fan of restaurant critic Jay Rayner. Thanks to his condescending manner on foodie shows like Masterchef, he’s known as as “floppy-haired sneery bloke” in our house. But it turns out there’s a time and a place for everything, even condescension. The time is now and the place is the in-tray of our mutton-headed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, the man who famously announced that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

Apparently Brexit’s great expertise denialist had bit of a change of heart recently and decided to invite a few food experts, including Jay Rayner, to join him for a round table discussion which he hoped might generate a few ideas about what he could do in the new cabinet post he’s been gifted (by Gove’s fact-free standards, Jay Rayner counts as an expert, by virtue of having actually used research and factual information when writing about food security and sustainability).

Sadly for Gove, experts in this country have had enough of people like Gove, so Jay Rayner declined the invitation to join him at his round table. Instead, Jay replied with a caustic open letter. I’ll quote some of it to give you a flavour, but do click though here and read the whole thing:

In the early 1990s Britain’s self-sufficiency in food reached its highest in modern times. We were producing just over 70% of all the food we were eating. Since then the story has been one only of decline. We now produce 60% of our own food, but because of exports only around 50% of the food we eat is actually produced here…

…The huge expansion of a vibrant middle class in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom on the flow of produce around the world. For many years the British supermarkets had free range over the produce from the southern hemisphere. However, many of those producers have increasingly chosen to trade with China and India. In 2000 14% of the world’s middle classes were in Asia; by 2050 that will be 68%. We no longer have unfettered access to the global larder. Given the fall in our self-sufficiency, this means we are now at risk from global shocks…

…And so now the UK sits with dwindling self-sufficiency, in a stormy world in which food has become one of the great economic battlegrounds. Added to that is the appalling folly of Brexit, forced through by a cabal of ideologues happy to trot out falsehoods about the sunny uplands of economic joy that leaving the European Union would bring…

…If, as many fear, a bad deal is done for Britain resulting in huge tariffs and penalties on trade, food price inflation is going to be in double digits for years to come. That’s if we can get hold of food at all. The people who will suffer the most, of course, are those who already have the least. For them the buying of food will use up a massive proportion of their expendable income…

…By leaving the EU the UK will be forced to open itself up to food production practices that are far less healthy, palatable or even safe. Likewise we may end up importing much more meat produced at a much lower welfare standard than we are used to. In short, Brexit risks exposing UK consumers to much lower food standards than we have come to expect…

…I find it extraordinary that, in the correspondence inviting me to the meeting of food experts called by you, your colleague Fiona Gately said that Brexit would not be part of the discussion. She later retracted that verbally; said it was of course something we could discuss. The point I made to her then and I make now is that, where our food supply is concerned, Brexit is the only subject. It is implicated in every single aspect of our food supply chain and risks imperilling the very health of the nation.

A few years ago, when discussing food security in the UK, Lord Cameron of Dillington – a farmer and first head of the Countryside Agency – said Britain was just ‘nine meals from anarchy’. It would take just three days of empty supermarket shelves, just three days of meals missed by hungry children and despairing parents, for the country to descend into massive civil unrest.

When I first heard that statement I regarded it as an interesting and diverting piece of hyperbole. Now it feels to me like a prediction.

Of all the things that were said to me when I was researching my recent an article on the importance of migrant labour to our food supply chain, the one that stayed with me most came from Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation: ‘If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country’.

Excellent stuff.

 

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