Opinion: Virus crisis makes food self-sufficiency vital

Who would have thought a Chinese man eating a bat in the mistaken belief it would make him more potent would have led to this?

It wasn’t as simple as that, I’m sure, but having witnessed “wet” food markets in China where dogs, cats, rats, snakes, terrapins, as well as bats, are sold, alive, to enthusiastic housewives, I cannot say I am surprised.

See also: Recognising farmers as key workers is long overdue

While visiting such a market, I said to our lady guide who had been reciting Confucius and other historic Chinese poets to our party:

“You must understand we don’t eat such animals in the UK.” “Oh, but they are delicious,” she replied. “You should try some.” Needless to say, I declined.

So, no-one should be surprised that the virus originated in south-east Asia. After all, this is not the first time it has happened, although most previous cases have been less serious than the current version of corona.

I am not suggesting total self-sufficiency. That would be unrealistic. But look at the statistics. Back in the mid-1990s Britain produced 75% of the food we consumed. Today it is about 60% and falling

Sars, Mers and a few others are all related and came from that region. They illustrate how animal diseases can be contagious to humans.

Matt Ridley and several other notable European scientists stated years ago that we were “playing Russian roulette” by importing products from that part of the world. But we continued to do so because they were cheap.

And therein lies the danger of globalisation, allied with the priorities of economists, government and otherwise, who rule our lives.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe it can be stopped. Such trade is embedded.

For even while we are in lockdown to try to halt the spread of Covid-19, Liz Truss, the UK’s international trade secretary, is negotiating deals around the world, some of them with countries where infection is worse than here.

But food-wise, there must surely be a pause in these negotiations as an assessment is made of the damage such a policy has done.

I am not suggesting total self-sufficiency. That would be unrealistic. But look at the statistics. Back in the mid-1990s Britain produced 75% of the food we consumed. Today it is about 60% and falling.

So, in 25 years we, as a nation, have reduced our capacity to feed our population by 15%. More to the point, we have increased the necessity to import food from wherever we could get it cheapest.

Economists might say that was a good deal for consumers. But my goodness we’re paying for it now.

And as the global economy – and our own – slides into even bigger corona-shaped holes, future generations will be burdened with the unenviable and expensive task of rebuilding them.

If this is not a lesson on the folly of running down domestic productive agriculture, I don’t know what is. Yes, we must also conserve our environment.

But, as so often after past “wars”, politicians’ memories prove short and they revert to previous prejudices. Before the current crisis, the environment was taking precedence over food production.

But it is possible to combine the two, as integrated farm management has amply demonstrated. What is needed when this is over is an urgent rebalancing.

And Britain should determine to reverse the decline in self-sufficiency and increase the food we produce in an enhanced environment.

Upcoming webinar

What does the future of farming look like post Covid-19 and Brexit?

Register now
See more