Chickens coming home to roost

Food. Everyone needs it. It’s one of those universal essentials that goes on regardless of a pandemic. But most of us are so used to getting it on our plate that we don’t worry about it how it got there, and whether the mechanisms which led it to get there are resilient. There is growing […]

Food. Everyone needs it. It’s one of those universal essentials that goes on regardless of a pandemic. But most of us are so used to getting it on our plate that we don’t worry about it how it got there, and whether the mechanisms which led it to get there are resilient. There is growing concern about how resilient global food supply chains are to The Coronavirus crisis, and what sort of crisis could emerge if they were to break down.

The WTO and UN yesterday made a joint appeal to keep agricultural workers employed and export markets open. “Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” they said. “Such reactions can alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility.”

A country like the UK has multiple points of food vulnerability. First, it has a huge trade deficit in food of £1.7 billion, meaning if there were to be the export restrictions the WTO and UN are warning against, the UK would have a serious shortage. Second, the market is hyper-sensitive to disruptions in the supply chain, because sellers (mainly supermarkets) have sought to keep storage costs to a minimum based on a just-in-time model. The FT reported yesterday on a “food waste explosion” due to “heavy disruption to a supply chain that relies on stability and predictability to keep stock moving and minimise waste”. This problem is compounded at the consumer side, with widespread reports of bins over-flowing with purchased food that has been hoarded in a hurry and then wasted even faster.

Finally, UK growers are utterly reliant on low-paid, seasonal foreign labour, mainly Eastern European, to pick the fruit and vegetables that is then delivered to market. Suddenly there is talk of special chartered flight for the fruit-pickers, the same low-cost immigrant labour that the right-wing press has derided for years. James Porter, a farmer in Angus, has told the BBC he needs to find hundreds of strawberry pickers within weeks or else his fruit will rot. He said normally 200 workers would travel from Eastern Europe, and it’s interesting that he showers them with praise: his “top pickers” are “very skilful”, productivity levels which will be next to impossible to find elsewhere. The National Farmers Union are appealing for students and the unemployed to head out to farms and pick, or else they “face ruin”. 

I am sure if a decent wage is paid for this skilled work then they will find the labour force. Food is just another case of our globalisation model not valuing its workers and not valuing resilience, and those chickens are now coming home to roost. Just one month ago today, a top advisor to the Treasury, Dr Tim Leunig, is reported to have said in high-level meetings that the UK’s food sector was “not critically important”, and agriculture and fisheries “certainly isn’t”. The UK could instead follow the Singapore model, of being “rich without having its own agriculture sector”. Those comments – made in the context of post-Brexit trade deals – now look foolish to the point of madness. The world of pointing to a sector’s share of national GDP to decipher how “important” it is must surely be over.

The dogmas of the neoliberal age are now extremely dangerous, to the point that Britain could quickly become a land of food waste and food shortages, all at the same time.