We’re leaving the European Union, but what effect does this have on the quality of food that is consumed in the UK?
Leaving the EU is a complex process, with all sorts of potential consequences. However, one issue that is crucial for everybody was hardly mentioned throughout all the campaigning. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has produced plentiful (sometimes excessive) amounts of cheap food for decades. Unfortunately, this has come at a huge financial cost (via farming subsidies) and the environmental damage (including the overuse of fertilisers). Also, subsidies motivate fraud and corruption on a staggering scale. Any attempt to reform the CAP has had very limited success, and any idea of drastically reducing subsidies is laughable.
Everybody’s familiar with the images of French farmers going on the rampage when their lucrative handouts are threatened. Farmers only make up 5.4 per cent of the EU’s population, but they account for 47 per cent of the EU budget. Taxpayers across the EU pay to fund the whopping £68 billion in farming subsidies each year. British farmers currently receive 55 per cent of their income via subsidies, but it isn’t dished out equally. The so-called ‘Barley Barons’ rake in millions owing to their vast size. Therefore, the removal of all subsidies would help to create an even playing field.
With the UK independent of the EU it will be easier (at least in theory) to reform the system of subsidies or get rid of them altogether. If that sounds ridiculous there is an existing model for this. In 1984 New Zealand removed virtually all farm subsidies overnight, and these made up 40 per cent of the average farmer’s income. The NZ government simply couldn’t afford to dish out these extravagant payments. Today, NZ’s farming is more efficient and it has significantly reduced the previously unrestricted use of fertilisers.
Also, in 1991, Cuba suddenly had to face the issue of producing food without any petrochemical fertilisers. The country had received a regular cheap supply from the old Soviet Union, but when the SU collapsed this ended very abruptly. The Cuban government was forced to adopt organic agriculture, and it was successful (including integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting and soil conservation). Also, the widespread establishment of ‘urban organic farming’; meaning people digging up their gardens and other spaces to plant veggies. This highlights the fact that humans can rapidly adjust to a sudden and permanent change, especially when faced with the stark choice of ‘adapt or starve’. One of the best examples of this is right here in Britain, when during World War Two the country faced a catastrophic food shortage. The Dig For Victory campaign was enthusiastically adopted across the nation, and its legacy of bountiful allotments continues to this day. Incidentally, Cuba’s organic honey production has been unaffected by CCD (colony collapse disorder) which many bee keepers believe is caused by pesticides.
Food security within the UK is a very serious issue, but it really isn’t taken very seriously. Supermarkets might appear to be stuffed with unlimited amounts of produce, but this is a delusion. Currently, only 54 per cent of our food is homegrown, 30 per cent comes from other EU countries, and the rest from other parts of the world. The UK’s food deficit gap is £21 billion per year. Unfortunately, one of the effects of cheap food is that huge amounts are wasted with household discards making up the highest proportion. One of the immediate impacts of Brexit could be food prices going up, but this could reduce the amount that’s thrown away. Also, as a nation we need to place a higher value (and this goes way beyond the price tag) on the food we buy.
Within the EU about 75 per cent of all agricultural land is used to produce animal feed. This process is hopelessly inefficient and totally unsustainable. And yet again, all the subsidies to supply the so-called ‘cheap meat’ are one of the key problems. The UK produces almost 1 billion chickens per year, and these are dirt cheap to buy but the real cost is huge owing to the campylobacter bug. This is endemic within the poultry business, and responsible for 90 per cent of all food poisoning in the UK (and kills an unknown number of people). It’s estimated that dealing with campylobacter costs the UK economy about £1 billion per year.
Out of the EU, the UK could create a genuinely innovative food policy that concentrated on self-sufficiency, sustainability, reduced use of fertilisers and pesticides, and moving away from a meat based diet. This doesn’t mean a ban on all the imported items we love to consume; including bananas, tea and coffee, chocolate, avocados and oranges. Nonetheless, a return to seasonal fruit and veg would make us all realise that some things (for example strawberries) aren’t meant to be available all year round. Any radical new food policy will require a massive shift of attitudes within the farming industry, and our political leaders. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely under the new regime of Theresa May as it would involve a direct confrontation with all the powerful vested interests represented by the agri-business, meat, fish and dairy industries. This was confirmed back in August when the government’s revised proposals to deal with childhood obesity were announced. All the previously radical suggestions were replaced with ‘watered down’ ideas, and only the new sugar tax (announced in March) will remain intact. It appeared the food industry lobbyists had easily influenced the new PM.
The reality is that the UK is leaving the EU, and it seems ironic that (apparently) many of the ‘Leave’ voters didn’t understand that voting ‘Out’ meant exactly this. Despite all the pessimistic predictions, it’s also a golden opportunity to reform various fundamental aspects of our society. Our current food policies, unsustainable methods of production, and attitudes to what we eat have to be revised. If reforms aren’t instigated now, then sooner or later major changes will happen anyway. This might not occur until we are forced (Cuban style) into a desperate corner, but feeding a potential global population of over 9 billion by 2050 isn’t feasible with cheap meat, farmed fish and absurd predictions of constantly increased levels of agricultural output. An intrinsic (and conveniently overlooked) factor is the massive reliance on oil at every stage of food production. This includes fuel for transportation, plastic packaging, and petrochemical fertilisers. The age of oil is definitely in decline, and this in itself should be a monumental warning that drastic action is required. Food is so important (we all have to eat to survive) but things have to change, and Brexit offers a clear opportunity to make enlightened decisions about how all of our food is produced.
Paul’s book Eccentric Man: A Biography & Discography of Tony (TS) McPhee, is a biography of musician first veggie Tony McPhee, and includes a chapter on the history of rock music and vegetarianism.
It’s available directly from Paul for £16.50 inc p&p. Full details via firstname.lastname@example.org