Opinion: Government ignoring food security warning signs

The bestselling book and Hollywood film The Big Short explains the global financial crisis of 2007-08 from the viewpoint of a handful of industry insiders who foresaw the calamity years in advance.

What’s striking isn’t how farsighted they were in predicting the collapse of the house of cards that was the US sub-prime mortgage market, but how inevitable that collapse was.

The warning signs were clear that it was built on sand, but it was an inconvenient truth ignored by those thinking only about their own short-term gain.

See also: Food strategy receives mixed reaction from industry

About the author

Joe Stanley
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Joe Stanley, ARAgS, is head of sustainable farming and knowledge exchange at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project, researching how farming and the environment can work in harmony. He is also chair of Leicestershire, Northants and Rutland NFU, sits on the NFU Environment Forum and is a trustee of the Henry Plumb Foundation. Views expressed in this column are his own.
Read more articles by Joe Stanley

The parallels with current UK food and farming policy are stark. Since 2016, farmers have endured hit after hit from our own government on everything from financial support to labour to trade.

Yet in that same timeframe, shock after shock has shaken our food system; Brexit, climate change, pandemic and war.

It’s incontrovertible that a strong, resilient domestic farming industry is a strategic national asset to a greater degree today than at any time since the 1940s.

And yet, despite industry highlighting in increasingly exasperated terms the danger of sunsetting food production in favour of a sole, underfunded focus on environmental services, ministers plough on unheeding toward the next crisis.

As in 2007, the warning signs are evident that the government’s policies are built on sand, but they are once again ignored as an inconvenient truth.

At the heart of these policies is a fundamental contradiction.

On the one hand is the agenda being driven by Tory greens such as Lord Goldsmith at Defra and Carrie Johnson in Downing Street, who seek to increase domestic standards on welfare and the environment, and shift the focus from food production to natural capital.

On the other is that of Tory free-marketeers such as Lord Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who wish to see the harshest market forces rip through an unsubsidised countryside, with the cheapest, lowest-quality food sourced from the four corners of the globe, and who care not at all for welfare or the environment.

Number 10’s solution to keep both camps happy is to ratchet up standards, costs and the environmental agenda at home, while simultaneously lowering financial support for farmers and opening up our markets to unfair competition from abroad. Genius!

Yet the inevitable outcome is the collapse of domestic production and leveraging of our environmental footprint abroad.

There’s a larger issue, too. Whether on climate, biodiversity, water or air, farmers are the main stakeholder in allowing government to achieve its ambitious paper targets, and Defra is the main department to deliver that.

Yet where is the government’s ambition or commitment to its own green agenda in merely rolling over the historic CAP budget and leaving Defra as one of the most feeble and underfunded of all departments?

The Cabinet is content to fund a national climate, biodiversity and food strategy on the EU’s pocket lint.

Ultimately, despite catastrophically poor decision-making and, in many cases, gross negligence, no banking leaders were ever sanctioned for their parts in the financial crisis; all walked away rich and free.

The same, too, is true of politicians: when the chickens come home to roost – whether on food or climate – today’s crop will be gone, and the buck will stop with those of us trying to piece things back together.

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