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Artillery Row

Let them eat cake

Our food security deserves more attention

On 16 May 2023, a long-awaited “Farm to Fork” food summit was convened by the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, at No 10 Downing Street. As reported in the UK media, guests included supermarket giants, farmers’ representatives, and food and retail groups. The government’s aim in holding this summit was ostensibly to boost “cooperation across the supply chain” and to support “the food sector’s resilience”. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) declared this food summit had provided a “positive outlook for UK food security”, demonstrated that “domestic self-sufficiency is back on the political agenda” and compelled the government to recognise the “strategic importance of British food and farming to the nation”. Others who attended were not so sanguine.

Many attendees claimed it to be an empty “PR stunt”, offering “nothing of substance” to farmers. Crucially, it failed to address key issues such as rising inflation. The government also fell short of committing to prevent the UK’s “self-sufficiency in food slipping below its current level of 60 per cent”, and it eschewed declaring the summit an annual event. This lack of substance should not come as a surprise, for successive Tory administrations have been big on rhetoric and promises, but poor on delivery. They have also been lackadaisical in investing in “excess capacity for low-probability, high-impact events” such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

UK “Food Security” has been defined by the government as encompassing the “state of global agriculture and markets on which the UK is reliant; the sources of raw materials and foodstuffs in the UK and abroad; the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail industries that ultimately bring food to shelves and plates, and their complex supply chains of inputs and logistics; and the systems of inspection that allow consumers to be confident their food is safe, authentic, and of a high standard”. Yet cynics have claimed that, despite being a national strategic asset, food has been hijacked and weaponised by both major parties for short-term, narrow political interests.

The government’s nascent curiosity in this topic, so it is argued, stems primarily from a concern that Labour, traditionally a metropolitan and urban political party, is trespassing on the Conservatives’ traditional preserves of agriculture and the countryside. Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, recently promised the NFU that a future Labour government would ensure “all food bought by the public sector would be produced locally and sustainably”. This neatly tallies with the NFU’s current demands regarding food security, namely an increase in domestically produced foodstuffs, as well as fairer and more efficient supply-chains. Yet the NFU, which has been calling for “action not words” from the government, is but one of a confederacy of interested parties in the UK who are worried about the state of the nation’s food security.

In many respects, official British complacency regarding this subject should not come as a surprise. During the post-1945 era, British politicians vowed “Never Again” to pre-war levels of hunger and malnutrition by committing the state to slaying the “Five Giants” of “idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want”, as identified in the 1942 Beveridge Report. This epoch can very much be viewed as a “golden age”. The end of wartime rationing in 1954, moreover, ensured Britain enjoyed unprecedented levels of food security. A corollary to this was that as a global power, albeit a diminishing one, the UK became a leading foreign aid donor, assisting “Third World”/developing countries with their own food poverty. In the 1980s, Britain became synonymous with alleviating famine in countries such as Ethiopia through “Live Aid” and its spin-offs. Famine and starvation, therefore, happened to others around the globe, not to a developed western country such as the UK with one of the largest economies in the world. Britain had not always been “a land flowing with milk and honey”, however. For those currently in government, who are largely historically illiterate — intellectually unmoved by the parallels, continuities and forces of history — a canter through the annals of British food security could well be in order.

Roughly one million people died of starvation in Ireland

Famines and food scarcity in Britain were realities our ancestors were obliged to live with on a regular basis. It is calculated that during the Middle Ages, Britain experienced no less than ninety-five famines. Whilst national food security greatly increased during the 18th century, due to the advent of industrialisation and accompanying improvements in agriculture, transport and the economy in general, the threat of famine and starvation never completely disappeared. Perhaps the most famous recent example of food scarcity was the Irish potato famine, or “The Great Hunger” of 1845 to 1852. Roughly one million people died of starvation in Ireland, and over two million were forced to migrate. Mainland Britain and western Europe were not immune. In excess of one hundred thousand people died, with food shortages contributing significantly to the 1848 revolutions that convulsed Europe.

The First World War reintroduced food scarcity across Britain and the belligerent nations of the Continent. Following the introduction of “unrestricted” U-Boat warfare by the Germans in January 1917, the UK was compelled to introduce compulsory rationing in December of that year. Controls on food in the UK were not subsequently relaxed until 1921. Poignantly, the inter-war years were characterised in part for the British by hunger marches, the most famous being the National Hunger March of 1932 and the Jarrow Crusade of October 1936. During the latter, two hundred men walked from South Tyneside to London in protest at endemic unemployment and poverty.

By 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War, the UK was importing 70 per cent of its food. As an island nation, the UK was therefore extremely vulnerable to German U-Boats and surface raiders, whose campaign against Britain’s maritime lines of supply and communication became known as the “Battle of the Atlantic”. In October 1939 the nation was asked to “Dig for Victory” by converting gardens and green spaces into allotments. Owing to the fact that the UK required over a million tonnes of imported material a week just to survive, in January 1940 food rationing was once again enforced. Colossal losses in shipping in the early years of the war severely reduced imports, thereby threatening starvation. Self-sufficiency with regards to food supply was seen as key to national survival. It is perhaps not surprising then that Winston Churchill would later confess in his magisterial history of the Second World War that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.

Whilst the British people, to paraphrase the one-time Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “never had it so good” during the late 1950s and early 1960s, by the 1970s UK food security was once again in jeopardy. This was largely due to industrial unrest, which precipitated a series of food crises — specifically a shortage of sugar in 1973, bread in 1974, salt in 1975 and bread again in 1977. As with today, shortages of supply drove up prices, which in turn led to demands for higher wages articulated by means of widespread strike action. Yet from the 1980s onwards, the UK populace once again enjoyed unprecedented levels of food affluence.

The turn of the 21st century pointed to renewed threats to the nation’s food supply-chain. In 1999, British lorry drivers launched a series of nation-wide strikes in response to rising petrol and diesel prices. The knock-on effects of this civil unrest led to a serious fuel crisis in 2000, prompting the Blair government to conduct a “risk strategy review” that addressed the issue of food security. Increases in global food prices from 2006 on, exacerbated by the financial crash of 2008, meant longer-term hunger in the UK started to become a social problem — epitomised by the appearance of “food banks”. This prompted the British Medical Journal in 2013 to class it a “public health emergency”. Not until 2019, however, did a British government commence official measurement of domestic food insecurity. Climate change, BREXIT, the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living-fuel crises and the war in Ukraine have combined to exacerbate the situation, yet nevertheless serve as urgent wake-up calls as to the perilous state of our food security.

Admittedly, the COVID-19 pandemic was such a strategic shock to the government that it was compelled to introduce the UK Food Security Report (UKFSR) in December 2021. Fulfilling Section 19 of the 2020 Agriculture Act, the report examined “past, present and predicted trends relevant to food security … ” Yet, legally, the government is only obliged to produce a UKFSR every three years. Given the level of potential threats and crises facing food production, supply and distribution in the UK, surely such a report should be an annual requirement?

The need for regular horizon-scanning is even greater when one considers the Executive Summary of the 2021 UKFSR, which reads: “The UKFSR is the first comprehensive review of the UK’s food security to be published since the UK Food Security Assessment (UKFSA), which was first published in 2009 and updated in 2010. [Yet] in the decade since the UKFSA, the food security landscape has changed significantly”. Evidently, for ten years successive Conservative administrations were, at best, “missing in action” and, at worst, “asleep at the wheel” regarding food security. More damning, however, is the fact that the UKFSR is “not a policy document” nor even a “showcase of current or future government policy”. Rather, it merely assists policymakers to “understand the landscape and the issues at stake, and to set out and interpret the best available evidence regarding food security”.

The superficiality of Sunak’s recent “Food Summit” is an unmistakable sign that, despite numerous warnings, the present government still does not take food security seriously. In keeping with its being an intellectually and morally bankrupt political force, the Tory government continues to exhibit an underlying conviction that food and water scarcity will not be the next seismic events to afflict Britain. There is more than a whiff of “It can’t and won’t happen to us. We are far too developed a nation for this to occur”. Yet recent history shows quite clearly that it has happened and will probably occur again at some point in the future.

On food scarcity, the Tories need to be an interventionist, large-state party

Aside from suffering from a lack of political will, “groupthink”, a reluctance to strategize and “presentism”, the Tories are also victims of their own fervent belief in the free market and its ability to remedy a myriad of problems. When the nation is hit with strategic shocks, such as COVID-19, the free-market is apt to go into free-fall. Consequently, the issue of food security is bringing into sharp focus the limitations of the Tories’ free-market philosophy. By insisting on being a free-market, small-state entity, the Tories are simply pursuing narrow party-political interests at the expense of the long-term national interest. Media commentators and agricultural pressure groups alike have characterised the present Conservative government’s approach to food supply as “leave it to Tesco et al”. This modus operandi reflects that of the present Prime Minister who, according to Sir Anthony Seldon in his recent monograph Johnson at 10, excels at setting the framework for major projects but then leaves them to the vagaries of the free market. Heretically, on the big strategic issues facing this country, such as food scarcity, the Tories need to be an interventionist, large-state party.

There is a growing consensus amongst food experts that the management of agricultural land will have to be transformed, so as to improve production and mitigate climate change. There are, moreover, urgent calls for the UK government to reduce its reliance on imported food stuffs (conservatively estimated to be 46 per cent) and instead begin to support and promote “high quality and sustainable national production”. This is going to require future governments and the British state to take a far more hands-on, proactive approach to food supply.

Despite the fact that the centre of government, by its own admission, “doesn’t really do history”, current policymakers would be advised to emulate the 1947 Agriculture Act and its provisions, which placed food security at the very heart of post-war agricultural policy. Conscious of the strategic shock administered to the nation by wartime food shortages, the 1947 Act stipulated a drastic increase in post-war domestic production and the numbers of people employed in farming. As COVID-19 pushed the state to the very brink of a food crisis, particularly with regards to production, distribution and supply-chains, a similar piece of legislation should be enacted for what one contemporary British historian has labelled the “AC — After Covid” era. Yet in the febrile world of current British politics, any government initiatives to better manage farmland would be misconstrued by right-wing ideologues as efforts to “collectivize” British agriculture. At best, accusations of a Socialist or “Blairite” agenda would be levelled. At worst, apparitions of Stalinist “five-year plans” and “central planning” would soon surface.

If another national emergency akin to World War Two were to occur, there could be no repetition of Britain’s 1940 “finest hour” with regards to food production. According to Graham Harvey, a leading farming expert, the UK’s decades of malpractice has “exhausted its reserves of soil fertility”. Fertile soils are the “ultimate food production security” and the main reason why Britain was able to “Dig for Victory” — thereby drastically expanding its wartime food output. Current policymakers should reflect deeply upon the national security implications stemming from existential threats to the production, supply and distribution of food at the national level.

The 18th and early 19th century French lawyer and politician Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his The Physiology of Taste, first published in 1825, “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.” No doubt Brillat-Savarin had in mind the French Revolution of 1789 when he first penned these words. A one-time deputy of the National Assembly, Brillat-Savarin fell foul of the Revolutionary Tribunal, and in 1793 he was forced into foreign exile. That same year, the ill-fated King Louis XVI of France and his wife Marie-Antoinette were found guilty of “treason” and guillotined. Legend has long asserted that on being told the French peasantry were starving, France’s last Queen is said to have retorted, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, or “Let them eat cake”. True or not, the root causes of the French Revolution were, inter alia, high food prices, iniquitous taxes on essentials such as salt and a suboptimal national food supply system.

Provoked by the idea that a shortage of food should act as a catalyst for insurrection, another revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, declared, “Every society is three meals away from chaos.” The American journalist, lawyer and novelist Alfred Henry Lewis went further, reflecting in 1906 that, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” In the early 21st century, the British Security Service MI5 warned policymakers that the UK was only “four meals away” from mob rule. It is a given that food should play such an essential role in ensuring socio-economic stability, law and order, the continued existence of humankind and indeed the planet. Yet the piece of central government machinery ultimately responsible for national resilience, namely the UK National Security Council (NSC), has also been found wanting with regards food security.

When in power, the Labour Party has been far more strategically orientated

Chaired by the Prime Minister, the NSC’s terms of reference are to consider issues “relating to national security, foreign policy, defence, trade, international relations, development, resilience and resources security”. Its key purpose is to ensure “ministers consider national security in the round and in a strategic way”. The Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) does not sit on the NSC’s “Resilience” committee, however. Instead, he is a member of the “Domestic and Economic Affairs (Energy, Climate and Net Zero)” committee whose remit is “To consider matters relating to energy, and to the delivery of the United Kingdom’s domestic and international climate strategy”. In national security terms, food security is not perceived to be a matter of “resilience”, but instead is viewed solely through the prism and focus of “climate change”. Yet, as already noted, many of the threats to UK food security are unconnected to “global warming”.

As raised in a previous article for The Critic (“‘No Thinking, Please, We’re British’”), central government has a very poor record with regards to long-term, strategic thinking. Such a contention is validated by a 2014 Institute for Government (IfG) publication, The National Security Council. Whilst confirming that the NSC is, in theory, the “logical place to have longer-term strategic discussions about the direction of government policy”, the report’s authors were forced to admit that in reality “its focus has been much more on tactical and operational decisions, reflecting in part the constraints of the format … but most importantly the prime minister’s own preferences”. In the wake of his “Farm to Fork” summit, it is now incumbent upon Sunak to place national interest before personal preferences by situating food security within the correct NSC’s sub-committee, namely “Resilience”.

Embarrassingly for the Conservatives, when in power the Labour Party has been far more strategically orientated and focused. In July 2008, for example, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown set up a “Food Strategy Task Force” whose job it was to “monitor ongoing developments in the food system and food markets”, to “publish regular updates on progress” and to “drive forward implementation of all measures” contained within the Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century report. Notably, this paper was produced by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (created by Tony Blair in 2002 and disestablished by David Cameron in November 2010), one of many such studies routinely passed through Cabinet for actioning, instead of being treated as mere “policy advice”. Fast-forward to December 2021, and the current Tory administration could only present a tsunami of “statistical data” to the public regarding food security in the UK. Long-term policy commitments were conspicuous by their absence.

Lack of strategic thinking on food security has left this country extremely vulnerable to strategic shocks such as COVID-19 and extreme weather events including the heatwave and drought of 2022. Blinded by globalisation, as well as decades of peace and prosperity, policymakers have routinely forgotten that Britain is an island and maritime trading nation. Consequently, the UK’s foreign food supply chains are at the mercy of extreme weather events, global pandemics, political disputes, border closures and, in extremis, naval interdiction by the surface and sub-surface forces of hostile countries.

Domestically, the production, supply and distribution of UK food stuffs are highly susceptible to pests, diseases, cyber threats, shortage of carbon dioxide, soil health, energy outages, strike action, transport problems and supply-chain issues. Furthermore, growing economic pressure on farmers, such as labour shortages and soaring costs — particularly for the “three Fs — food, fuel and fertiliser” — may force many to quit the business. Growing instances of empty shelves in supermarkets will follow. If the country is to avoid food scarcity, panic buying, food hoarding and civil disorder during the next national emergency, then it is incumbent upon central government and politicians to take food security seriously and plan accordingly. On this pressing issue, gesture politics, PR stunts and narrow or polarising partisanship are ultimately inimical to the national interest.

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