BY JIM WEBSTER
There are no lingering doubts now. This virus has turned the world upside down. The late, great, Douglas Adams wrote, “The History of every major Galactic Civilisation tends to pass through three distinct and recognisable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterised by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?”
Thanks to Covid 19 we have dropped precipitously from the third phase all the way down to the first. “How can we eat?” We’re in survival mode.
When you look at the table which covers various foodstuffs, some of which we’re self-sufficient in as a nation, you can see there is some good news.
First, seed potatoes. Well we don’t actually eat them, but if we have enough seed potatoes, we can grow enough potatoes.
Wheat looks less good. Not only are we not quite self-sufficient, but the wheat we do have could end up producing some pretty sorry looking bread. In simple terms, bread-making wheat is better the more sunshine it gets. This is why, as a rule of thumb, the French grow better bread-making wheat than we do. What we normally do is buy some very high quality American or Canadian milling wheat and use that to bring our average up.
When it comes to meat, there’s plenty of lamb, we’re not bad for beef but pork and poultry are a bit scarce. There again, we’ve plenty of barley so we can keep up beer production and potentially feed more livestock. (So, thankfully, lamb chops, chips and beer are still on the menu.)
Rapeseed oil may not be your cooking oil of choice, but at least we’ve got it.
The problem areas are vegetables and fruit. We import the vast majority of them. (So just don’t expect peas with your chop and chips.) There are various reasons for this. Firstly we don’t have the climate for a lot of fruit. Yes, we can grow a damned good apple, but let’s be honest, oranges and bananas are not really our forte.
Secondly a lot of veg is now too cheap to grow in the UK. The major retailers have driven the price down until it’s reached a point where it’s not worth growing in this country. Other countries with cheaper labour and better climate grow it for us. Unless the crop can be mechanised it needs hand-picking and you struggle to find anybody in this country that is willing to do such work. Especially given the fact that it’s hard work, the conditions are often unpleasant (given our climate, this is inevitable) and the money isn’t good. Indeed given the way the major retailers have driven prices down, it’s no wonder the money isn’t good.
So does this actually matter? Whilst we aren’t in the happy situation of our grandparents, where the Great White Queen had millions of happy subjects living under hotter, foreign suns who were delighted to send cheap food to us, a lot of people in this country still hold the same attitudes. Food production is something to be done as cheaply as possible, exploiting people they’ll never be forced to apologise to.
Now the problem we have is that, because of the virus, we will struggle to get people to harvest some of our crops. I’ve been told by some people that they have no sympathy, because it’s all to do with Brexit and farmers were a bunch of thicko racists who voted for it so can suffer the consequences of their stupidity.
Except it’s nothing to do with Brexit. Arrangements were being put in place to allow for seasonable workers. We imported seasonal workers long before we went into the EU.
The reason people are not coming is, first they are locked down in their home country, and then they struggle to get flights even if they could travel. And finally, do you really want to run the potential risk of riding out a pandemic in a country where you struggle to understand the ICU nurse, and the Priest who gives you the final unction cannot bless you in your own tongue? Or would you rather spend lockdown with your family?
It’s not just us who are suffering. Germany relies on 300,000 seasonal workers, the French have to find fewer, but depending on how you measure it, they still need about 200,000. The Italians need 370,000 seasonal workers and whilst some Italians are not too proud to do the work, they import them from all over the world.
This is not just a European issue. In India farmers are feeding strawberries and lettuce to their cattle because the tourists who would otherwise have eaten them aren’t there anymore. Neither are the street vendors who would have sold them to the local population. Not only that but the lock-down imposed by the Indian government left 120 million migrant labourers struggling to get home and with no money for rent, food or transport. In India harvest is far less mechanised in many areas. Grain sacks are filled manually, manually loaded onto vehicles and manually unloaded again.
Even countries like Brazil are experiencing problems because they’re struggling to get lorry drivers to haul stuff off farm, and there are apparently shortages of spares to keep equipment working.
Because of the uncertainty, some countries are limiting exports. Russian and Kazakhstan have set a limit to grain exports, whilst Vietnam, Cambodia, and India have limited rice exports. Some countries which are major net importers of basic foodstuffs are frantically stockpiling. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is a major importer of grain and rice, the governments haven’t the money to stockpile.
Also production of other products has been hit. So Kenya, a major supplier of green beans and peas to Europe, just cannot ship orders because of a lack of flights. So about half of the workers have been sent home.
So what is going to happen? Are British people (and Germans and Italians etc.) going to go back to doing field work?
To be honest, if they do, I can see positive benefits for society. At the very least it’ll put people back in touch with the realities of food production. So when Mum goes into Tesco or Asda and sees a cabbage, she knows exactly what her daughter was paid for picking it, and what the farm got paid for it.
If British people do go back to farm work, what sort of pay are they going to get? Are the supermarkets going to be willing to pay a higher price for the food at the farm gate? After all, even if we do get a lot of new field workers, they won’t be skilled. They won’t have the dexterity and stamina of the people they’re replacing. Obviously, some will drop out, but some will stick with it and will eventually reach what you might call a ‘professional’ level. But the wage bill is going to have to rise to cover the extra people needed, even if they aren’t paid more per head.
Looking ahead, are we going to continue with the obscenity of importing vegetables by air from Kenya when that part of Africa struggles to produce enough basic foodstuffs to feed itself?
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.