As of this week I find myself running a homeschooling programme for my two children, for the duration of the Coronavirus lockdown. Yesterday we went to Harpenden to stock up on the stationery and books we would need, and stopped into a supermarket for a loaf of bread while we were there. In an experience that has been repeated up and down the country, we found the shelves empty.
Supermarket shelves were often empty in Madagascar when I was a child, but I’ve never seen anything like it in Britain. No fruit and vegetables except a handful of limes, the last thing to go. No milk or cheese, no meat, though plenty of Quorn I noticed. Dried goods such as pasta and rice had been cleared, and people had also stocked up on beer and wine, tea and coffee. The few customers who were there were wandering around in a bit of a daze, taking what they could from what remained – green tea, pickles, jam.
This is all a bit odd. As far as I’m aware there is no interruption to supply lines. The usual amount of food is coming into the country, and there is plenty to go round. The problem is that people are buying more than usual, stocking up either in anticipation of staying indoors for a few weeks or in panic. Either way, shoppers have spent millions more than usual, and the supermarkets aren’t equipped for stockpiling of this kind. The food is in the warehouses, but there isn’t the capacity in the delivery networks to keep the shops fully stocked.
This has been a problem in many parts of the world, so it’s far from unique to Britain. However, it’s worth taking stock of the broader issues in the food system. The coronavirus should be a wake-up call to the fragility of our food supply lines, because unlike the rest of the world, we’re commiting a Brexit in a few months. Now we know what it’s like to find the supermarkets empty, let’s do what we can to avoid that scenario in January.
It so happens that I’m reading Tim Lang’s book Feeding Britain this week, a timely publication. He argues that “Britain has a false sense of security about food”. We assume that we’re rich enough to buy what we need, and rely on other countries to feed us. 40% of our food comes from the EU, which we’ve just left. At the moment there is no real strategy on what happens next year – do we continue to source that 40% from there? Do we try and buy more from the US, and sacrifice our food standards in order to increase trans-Atlantic trade? Donald Trump certainly thinks that’s the way we should go, even though lower food standards would decimate our own local food production. Should we be trying to increase the percentage of food we grow ourselves, make better use of our land, and work to wind down unproductive subsidies?
The government hasn’t given any real thought to food security in Britain for a decade. The last time it got any political attention was the Food Matters and Food 2030 reports, which I wrote about at the time. When the government changed in 2010, the Conservative led coalition binned those strategy papers and has left it to the market ever since. Even with the massive changes of Brexit just months away, there is still no sense of what we want as a nation, of what our food system and our food culture could be. That’s complacent and entitled. Tim Lang calls it a post-colonial hangover: we expect others to grow food for us, a “malign assumption that we have the right to be fed.”
Let’s take this week’s supermarket shock as a reminder that food security has been sat on the to-do list for far too long. Big changes are coming. There are decisions to make that we ought to make democratically. I know there’s a lot on the government’s plate right now, but we’ve had a taste of what food shortages look like, and nobody will want seconds come January.