What Michael Gove didn’t talk about at #OFC2018

What Michael Gove didn’t say in this speech to the Oxford Farming Conference yesterday was far more significant than what he did.

He didn’t say a word about food security.

Yet food shortages, and looming food insecurity can be clearly seen already, even here in the UK.

Fresh’n’veg price hikes & unavailability of some products only last year
There was a fruit and veg price hike late spring last year. Moreover, for a brief time (while wholesalers searched for other sources) cucumbers, avocados and lettuce couldn’t be bought for love nor money. Why? Floods in southern Europe at a critical time, yet another weather event, telling of climate change and far more serious shortages in the future.

Food insecurity already within the UK
The rise in food banks is telling. As is recently published UN FAO data indicates some 8.4M (12%) of adults living in UK households reported having insufficient food.

There may be enough food in the country to feed us all, getting enough, safe, nutritious food to everyone isn’t happening. Will there be enough in the future?

The UK is nowhere near self-sufficient; we import 40% — most from the EU
Currently 40% of what we eat in the UK is imported, nearly all (97%) from the European Union or countries with which the EU has Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) or PTAs about to come into force.

Mr Gove stated he was ‘confident of building a new economic partnership with the EU that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods across each other’s [sic] borders’. There is no evidence for this confidence, unless we stay in the single market and the Customs Union.

And the global competition for sufficient, safe, nutritious food will get dramatically more intense
Global competition for safe, nutritious food is increasing. It’s difficult to see how the world can grow substantially more food, and the global population is growing.*

The following issues raise serious challenges to the UK’s food security:

Climate change

  • Climate change, water scarcity, soil deficiencies and pollution threaten food production in much of Asia. Parts of this area, as the Middle East is or soon will be too hot for human habitation, or for growing food.
  • Although not as threatened by these factors as other regions in the world, we’re a small densely populated island. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, for example, East Anglia, currently ‘Britain’s breadbasket’, were to become an infertile dustbowl (Case Study 1 in the GFS 2017 report Environmental tipping points and food system dynamics; Case Study 2, about a collapse in the AMOC, is much scarier.)

Water scarcity

  • Currently, one third of the planet is water-deficient, and it will be two-thirds by 2050.

Population and demographic pressures

  • Barring catastrophe, there will be a third more people alive in 2050 than there are now; i.e 10 billion of us.
  • Meanwhile, a billion of the 7.5bn alive today are malnourished, another 2bn are over-nourished and a further 2bn suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ — that is people deficient in micro-nutrients.
  • And that ‘hidden hunger’ affects perhaps a third of us here in the UK.
  • Meanwhile, of the billions alive now, a growing number strive to have the resource-intensive diet of those of us in North America and much of Europe, and have the affluence and access to global markets that mean they can.

Primary production doesn’t provide a living

  • Worldwide, farmers are an elderly community; the average age is 58 in Britain, in China, it’s 60, in Japan, it’s 65. The reason why is that farmers can’t make a living. It’s not possible to have a food supply system where those involved in primary production can’t make a living.

Slavery & child labour

  • Some of our existing food supply system is based on slavery and child labour. We don’t know where our food comes from; it’s likely 20% here in the UK is the product of modern-day slavery somewhere along the line.

Food system structure: City & urban population

  • 83% of the UK population lives in cities or urban areas, the highest percentage of OECD countries. (In the EU as a whole, it’s 75%.)
  • Nearly all food stuffs are highly perishable once harvested.
  • Thus we have efficient, highly complex networks to get food processed and distributed to the population.
  • There is a business imperative to add value — and profits — at every level within this network.

Distortions in the system
This drive to add processing levels — and therefore higher profits leads to distortions to the system; e.g.

  • Fruit’n’veg wholesaler profits are 0-2.5%; while Nestle, Pepsi and Coca-Cola (most of whose products have zero or very low nutritional value) are Forbes’ three top food and drink companies in 2017.**
  • The global production of zero or low nutritional value products uses up soils, water and energy; i.e. their production is a major challenge to global food security (see this blogpost, Spud or crisp?on the matter).

Zero and low nutritional foods
Food and drink is zero-rated, unless it has zero or low nutritional value. The categories (dating from Purchase Tax, introduced during World War II) are most drinks (excluding milk of course), savoury snacks such as crisps, biscuits (not cakes or pastries, as they couldn’t be manufactured then) and confectionery.

Our analysis of Defra stats shows that 30% of UK household food spend is on VAT-rated products, with a further 4% on cakes and pastries.

  • Of Mr Gove’s 10 examples of ‘distinctive quality produce’, (Belvoir soft drinks, Botanist Gin and Tyrell’s crisps) were products carrying standard-rate VAT.
  • All this raises a useful question: Given the pressures on the global food system, how much of the UK’s food and drink system should be in the production of products that have zero or very low nutritional value?

And what are short-term consequences of having a third of the system producing low-value (if profitable) products?

  • The ideal human diet is about 50% fruit and non-starchy vegetables, about 25% carbs, and around 25% protein and fats.
  • Yet around 70% of the world’s primary production is of starchy carbohydrates and around 12% fruit and veg.
  • And the cost of getting the diet wrong is considerable. Our calculations for Birmingham tell us that for every £1 spend by citizens on food and drink, £0.90 is spent in dealing with the dietary consequences; see summary blogpost here.
  • This figure excludes the cost of dental treatments or mental health (as I couldn’t find the data) . . .
  • Nor did it include any costs involved in recycling. An extrapolation from UK sales figures indicate that, here in Birmingham, our City Council has to collect and deal with 132M cans and bottles from Coca Cola alone.

The full text of Michael Gove’s speech is here. It was also recorded, and you can watch it on YouTube:


Our compilation of papers, reports et al on Brexit and the food system is here.

See also BBC Politics report: Post-Brexit farming funds set out by Michael Gove; BBC Scotland report: ‘Unanswered questions’ over post-Brexit farming funds; the Daily Telegraph: Genetically modified animals could be sold in the UK after Brexit, says Michael Gove; the Guardian: Farmland could be turned into wildflower meadows after Brexit, says Michael Gove.

  • * Sure, some of the shortages can be sorted by reducing the amount thrown away or going rotten. And demand-side stuff, changing diets would make a difference too.But not probably not enough of a difference. And almost certainly, not in time.
  • ** Forbes top 25 companies: Of these, all but five (Volkswagen, WalMart, Apple, Samsung & ATT) are energy or banking/finance companies.

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