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Weather or not…

By Jo Phillips

By Jo Phillips

As we gear up for crop shortages and food prices rises, Jo Phillips asks 'What’s gone wrong with our relationship with food?'

Here’s a good pub quiz question – who was the Minister for Drought ?

Denis Howell, a Labour MP for Birmingham who was appointed to that post in the long hot summer of 1976. He was actually dubbed the Minister for Rain because that’s what the country desperately needed after severe drought and within a week of taking office there was heavy rain and widespread flooding. That’s politics for you.  

While it might not be beyond the desperate measures of the current government to create a Minister for Sunshine, while blaming the endless rain on immigrants, wokeness, lefty lawyers, unions or the civil service we have got a real problem. Fields are under water which means animals can’t graze so have to be fed with hay which pushes up the cost to farmers. It’s too wet to plant anything which means crops will be late and that in turn pushes prices up which get passed on to us, the consumer.

British farmers are protesting against trade deals that they say are leading to “substandard imports and dishonest labelling”, undercutting them and putting food on supermarket shelves that is produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK. Add to that the chronic labour shortage which has seen many growers simply abandon orchards and soft fruit production. Meanwhile drought in parts of Spain, crop failures across Europe and Africa are having an impact on so many things we take for granted – olive oil, chocolate, wine, fruit and salads. It took Putin’s invasion of Ukraine for most of us to realise how dependent we are on that country for supplies of wheat, fertiliser, sunflower oil and much more. So you might think that food security should be rather higher up any government’s political agenda.

A maxim shared, bizarrely by both Lenin and MI5 is that we’re only three or four meals away from anarchy. Which seems crazy given that the UK throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in a single year. We have more food choice than ever and yet we have an acute obesity crisis while more than eight million people in the UK are in food poverty.  

What’s gone wrong with our relationship with food?  

The answer I think is that we no longer have a relationship with food – it’s become a retail experience, anything and everything we want is pretty much available whenever we want it – delivered right to our door so we don’t even have the joy of looking, squeezing, and smelling fresh produce. We’ve lost the ability to be excited about the first asparagus, rhubarb or tomatoes, to savour fresh caught fish or sausages made by the local butcher. And we don’t know how to cook despite the plethora of cookery programmes and books. Don’t even get me started on the thousands of hectares of agricultural land being sold off for development.

Of course supermarkets and Brexit have played a part in this but so too have successive governments where to be an environment or farming minister is either a demotion or the first step on the governmental ladder – in other words, not a serious job for anyone with political ambitions. Food, its production, preparation and availability is absolutely central to all our lives and has an impact on health, the environment and the economy. All of that affected by climate change, conflict and shifting geopolitics. It’s time to take food security seriously and plan for the long term.

We might be three meals away from anarchy but we’re sure as hell at least ten Environment Ministers away from anything near sensible.

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