The Covid-19 pandemic continues to shake our global societal structure to the core, revealing uncomfortable truths along the way. One of which being the stagnation of the UK food system and our lack of strategic thinking about food and farming.
Although we are anticipating an updated National Food Strategy in the coming months, it should alarm us all that this is the first of its kind in over 75 years. Considering how much our cultural, environmental and political environment has developed in this time, any form of progress will surely be welcomed. But food is an emotive topic, entrenched within tradition, livelihoods and public health. This makes change difficult, but it is needed now more than ever.
Reduced public awareness fuels the problem
Food supply chains are one of the most important, yet least understood entities that affect every person on this planet. In the Western world, it has become normalised to regularly purchase goods without giving a second thought about the journey they have made to end up on our shelves. Despite increasing individual choice, this leaves the consumer increasingly more detached from the people and processes which put food on our plates.
As an example, apples are the most commonly grown fruit in the UK, but 40% of adults cannot correctly name a country where apples are grown and 20% of children do not know that apples grow on trees. Is this surprising, when 60% of adults state that they have never considered where their groceries come from?
In the last few weeks, the fragility of the UK food and farming sector has been thrown into the spotlight. Between February and March this year, UK shoppers spent an additional £2 billion on food and drink, and made 8 million more shopping trips than they did in 2019. Empty shelves should be a stark reminder that it is not solely the supermarkets who keep us fed, it is the global system of farmers, and despite being the most vital part of this system, they benefit the least from it.
As modern consumers, we have become all too used to having exactly what we want, exactly when we want it. But despite what the system has led us to believe, food production simply cannot fit into this hyper-commercialised mould.
Food maps and trade gaps
The UK has a strong farming heritage, but in 2018 only half of the food we consumed was grown on our soil. Sourcing food from multiple countries can strengthen the UK food supply, as it decreases the risk of regional issues, keeps prices competitive and increases consumer choice. However, our trade gap – the difference between imports and exports – is increasing. In fact for every broad category of food (cereals, sugar etc.), we import far more than we export. In 2018, this left a trade gap of £24.2 billion. The majority of the discrepancy comes from fruit and vegetables, with a sobering trade gap of £10 billion.
Tim Lang, the UK’s leading expert on food policy recently stated that ‘Of the 6,000,000 hectares of cultivable land in Britain, only 168,000 hectares [2.8%] are used for fruit and vegetables. As a result, we have to import vast amounts of crops we could otherwise be growing. Much of the remaining land is used for crops to feed livestock for processed food’.
Fruit, salads and vegetables are vital for human health, and a large majority of the UK supply is imported from Spain and Italy – the two European countries most devastated by Covid-19. But the concerns do not stop there. The fruit and vegetables which are grown in the UK are overwhelmingly picked and packed by foreign workers – as much as 98% of seasonal workers come from eastern European countries – many of which will be unable or unwilling to travel.
Each year UK farmers require 90,000 extra workers to help grow, harvest and pack their produce; this is skilled work, often requiring long days and on site living just above minimum wage. The Government has been quick to call for a ‘new land army’ to meet the countries pressing needs, but despite 50,000 applications, it has been reported that just 112 people have accepted their new role. Despite media speculation, this is not down to ‘British laziness’. Farm work requires niche skill sets and exceptional commitment to the role – similarly to many industries, enthusiasm alone will not cut it.
We are currently living through a transition period, where many of us have extra time to reflect on our everyday actions. Whilst we anticipate more normality in our lives in the near future, many are now considering the concept that ‘normal wasn’t working’. We want a fair, secure and kind food and farming sector that has kept up with the modern consumer – which is why we have a number of initiatives and campaigns to help make this a reality.
In April we co-signed an open letter to the UK Government to move away from financially propping up the failing dairy industry and instead provide farmers with financial assistance to transition to plant-based agriculture. We need to tackle the £10 billion trade gap that our country faces every year through fruit and vegetable imports, and to do this we need Government backing.
This letter supports our ongoing Grow Green campaign, which encourages policy change to shift towards plant protein agriculture and other sustainable forms of land management. We can feed our growing nation sustainability with plant protein crops, but to do this UK farmers need support. Unsustainable animal agriculture has been favoured through Government subsidies for far too long – it is time to direct these to protein crops instead.
Eating seasonal fruit and vegetables can help rebalance the supply and demand issues that lead to huge amounts of food waste and financial strain for farmers. Small decisions such as these can lead to huge benefits throughout the supply chain. You can learn more about seasonal fruit and vegetables by purchasing a chart from our own website, or an Eat Seasonably calendar.
We also support companies such as Hodmedod’s, who work with British farmers to supply customers with delicious products from lesser known crops such as fava beans and black badger peas which are suited to UK soils and climate. This is a true credit to the potential of British plant agriculture, highlighting that benefits can be brought to the environment and public health by increasing crop biodiversity both within the fields and within the diet.
The issues concerning seasonal working are complex and will remain so in a post Covid-19 world. As an organisation we are continuously monitoring the situation and considering ways in which we can offer support or solutions to this ever changing situation. If you are interested in applying for seasonal farm work, you can learn more here.
The sheer complexity and power dynamics within the global food system lead to injustices at every level. We want a resilient, sustainable and compassionate food and farming sector that brings benefits to our cultural environment and to the modern consumer. Government support is crucial, but we as individuals also have a critical role to play.
The views expressed by our bloggers are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.