We have an enormous capacity to feed ourselves better, in terms of quality of food, healthy food and affordable food. Yet half a million people now rely on foodbanks, demeaning rather than uplifting, and not providing fresh healthy food. These are the tip of an iceberg, and I don’t mean lettuce. In places round here in Lancashire, there are “larders” – where food is left in discreet cupboards for people to get better food without going through the demeaning foodbank process. If a parent allows a child to go hungry it is called neglect, but this government calls it welfare reform.
Yet we can easily produce much more decent food – cheaply. At present, EU subsidies of around £3 billion go to landowners – for doing nothing. The more land they own the more they get. Similar amounts, if we come out of the EU, could go to people working the land. Some 300,000 permanent workers could get £10,000 each. That could bring food prices down, provide living wages, supply fresh local food and stimulate our rural economy.
But the forces of finance in the City will push to get rid of those subsidies altogether if we Brexit. The free marketers say we should import more and more cheap food from overseas. That will mean more corn and its syrup from USA, more beef from South America and more lamb from New Zealand and Australia. Not only is this all environmentally crazy, it threatens to kill our rural economies.
We use other people’s land, labour and water – accounting for two-thirds of our greenhouse gases and twice as much land as we use here. We should develop our own food sector to feed ourselves properly. Local farms could produce for food service industries – the country’s largest manufacturing sector – linking town and country. While many individuals look to buy local, we also need more retailers and food manufacturers to encourage local sourcing.
There is quite a divide across the north as to the style of farming. In the west, there are mainly family farms, predominantly animals feeding on pasture, and the products go into the local economy, employing local lads and lasses. In the east, there are the big arable farms growing grain and vegetables, the latter being monocultures with predominantly migrant workers. This is where the original push for Brexit came from. These two very different styles give us a flavour of what we may want from our food and farming in the future.
My book Bittersweet Brexit examines the issues of trade, land and labour in some detail, to determine whether “we are what we eat”. We need a debate the like of which we have not had in generations, about how we produce our food. We have to realise the market is not going to answer our problems. For too long it has been left to the market – and the supermarkets – to deal with the complexities. Clearly that does not address a multitude of issues from land, global warming, water use, foodbanks
and food miles – all important in our food system.
If Brexit means anything, it is about re-defining our identity. How can we do that in relation to food and farming? Some seem to think that sailing into the sunset as “global Britain” will do the trick. I argue we should be producing much more of our own food. We import nearly half our food. If we halved that, we could spend £25 billion on our own food production and stimulate rural growth. This money would re-circulate to give us enough for social care – while helping save the planet.
Charlie Clutterbuck is an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London. His book Bittersweet Brexit was published by Pluto Press on World Food Day