A few weeks ago, I was approached by an official at the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. She told me the Secretary of State was holding a round table discussion for ‘innovative thinkers’ on July 25 to give him ‘food for thought in the early days of the new job’. He had asked for me to be invited.
The Secretary of State is Michael Gove. I found this peculiar. Just before Christmas, when he was in the political wilderness following his calamitous attempt to secure the Tory leadership post the Brexit vote, he trolled me on Twitter. He accused me of behaving in a dodgy manner by offering to retweet photographs of my book being sold by retailers. He said it was a journalistic conflict of interest, despite the fact that none of them are retailers of the sort I review. He also accused me of failing to offer myself for public service (by implication, as he had). Hilarious: at the time, he was taking a six-figure salary from Rupert Murdoch to write for The Times when he was also employed as an MP.
It was a bizarre episode which you can read about more fully here. (I understand Gove was motivated by my having taken his wife, Sarah Vine, to task for attacking Ed Milliband over his two kitchens. I pointed out that she and Gove bought theirs using more than £7000 of public funds which they then had to return during the expenses scandal.)
And now here he was, as Secretary of State, asking me for advice. Michael Gove, the man who railed against too many experts during the Brexit referendum, was looking for my expertise. (For those wondering why he cared what the bloke from Masterchef thought, in 2013 I published a book about food security and sustainability in the 21st century).
After much hard thought, I have concluded I am just not grown up enough to play the game of British politics and sit in a room with a man of whom I think so little.
Yes, he may have done good by bringing in free school meals while at Education. Yes, he made positive moves while at Justice.
But since then he has disgraced himself. He was one of those who continued the £350 million-a-week EU lie and led us down the disastrous path to the utter folly of Brexit. He has been revealed to be a plotter and a conniver and all-round rather nasty piece of work. No, I cannot sit in a room with him and make talk, small, large or otherwise. Sorry. I’m just not that guy.
But god knows he needs advice, because our whole food supply chain has been imperilled by the Brexit vote. I have therefore decided to put my thoughts into a written submission, which I am also posting here. It should be noted that this was written prior to his announcement on reform to subsidies of today (July 21). His comments chime with what I say below, which itself is a repeat of what I said in an interview for Farming Today, broadcast in March 2017.
Some might regard this as self-aggrandising. Of course, in one sense this is true. Newspaper columnists are by their nature self-aggrandising. We believe what we have to say is worth hearing. Michael Gove can tell you all about that. No surprises there.
But I would add that, if drawing maximum attention to myself were really my aim, I would have tried to get my newspaper to publish a version of this, and earned some dosh along the way. I chose not to do that and am publishing it on my website instead.
And there is a final key point. Michael Gove has never before shown any interest in the important job he has been given. Theresa May only appointed him because she needed his support following the disastrous General Election result and the loss of her majority. He only took the job for political reasons, not because he cares about food or the environment. Politicians in these circumstances are usually found out quickly and I expect this will be the case with Gove. I don’t imagine he’ll last more than a few more months in the job before being shuffled off. Frankly, I didn’t want to waste all this effort on someone who will soon not even be there. His successor will be able to read the report too. And you, if you like.
It should also be said that writing this took a lot more time than sitting in a bloody room with him.
I emailed the document below to Gove’s office just before posting it here.
WRITTEN SUBMISSION FOR MICHAEL GOVE MP, SECRETARY OF STATE AT THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS
By Jay Rayner
In the early 1990s Britain’s self-sufficiency in food reached its highest in modern times. We were producing just over 70% of all the food we were eating. Since then the story has been one only of decline. We now produce 60% of our own food, but because of exports only around 50% of the food we eat is actually produced here. There are a number of reasons for this, but key among them is the dominance of the supermarkets. In the late 80s and early 90s a series of changes to the planning laws allowed for the building of large out-of-town hypermarkets on previously greenfield sites which in turn encouraged the boom in the supermarket sector. That created the food retail landscape we have today in which fewer than a dozen companies control over 90% of the food retail market.
The supermarkets used that dominance to drive prices ever lower, and with drastic impacts. This is no knee-jerk negative response to the concept of supermarkets. They have their positives. They have kept pace with social change, shortening the length of time it takes people to get the shopping done, thus enabling the two-job households required to keep pace with the cost of living. They have been a prime driver of food culture in the UK, providing a ready source of the ingredients consumers have been introduced to via the media. They have enabled huge economies of scale.
However, they have also imperilled whole sectors of agriculture, including the dairy and pig business. Enormous numbers of food producers have either gone bust or simply left the business because it was no longer viable. We are no longer in a position to feed ourselves adequately. And all of this is against a swiftly changing global situation.
THE GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
In 2006 DEFRA produced a paper on food security which declared it was not an issue for an industrialised developed nation like Britain; that the supermarket sector had the financial heft to buy us out of any problems. It was nicknamed the ‘leave it to Tesco’ report by many in the food policy world.
It was a naïve and short-sighted report which failed to understand changing global demographics. The huge expansion of a vibrant middle class in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere has challenged the conventional wisdom on the flow of produce around the world. For many years the British supermarkets had free range over the produce from the southern hemisphere. However, many of those producers have increasingly chosen to trade with China and India. In 2000 14% of the world’s middle classes were in Asia; by 2050 that will be 68%. We no longer have unfettered access to the global larder. Given the fall in our self-sufficiency, this means we are now at risk from global shocks including exceptional weather events (which, courtesy of climate change, are becoming less exceptional), disease, war and disturbances in the commodity markets. All of this was exemplified by the huge price spikes of 2008 – caused by multiple events, including bio-fuel policies in the US, drought in Australia and typhoons in Bangladesh – which saw many countries banning exports of grains.
The importance of food price rises around the world should not be understated. The Arab Spring of 2010 was, for a long while, described as some spontaneous uprising in pursuit of democracy. In truth it was a response to food price rises and the increasing inability of authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East to subsidise those costs, which had been used as a tool to keep populations in line.
BACK TO THE UK
And so now the UK sits with dwindling self-sufficiency, in a stormy world in which food has become one of the great economic battlegrounds. Added to that is the appalling folly of Brexit, forced through by a cabal of ideologues happy to trot out falsehoods about the sunny uplands of economic joy that leaving the European Union would bring.
Instead it has resulted in a devaluation of the pound, making imports more expensive and the exporting of our food more attractive.
If, as many fear, a bad deal is done for Britain resulting in huge tariffs and penalties on trade, food price inflation is going to be in double digits for years to come. That’s if we can get hold of food at all. The people who will suffer the most, of course, are those who already have the least. For them the buying of food will use up a massive proportion of their expendable income.
There are major implications for the nation’s health and therefore, over the long term, for educational attainment and class division. The state of our food supply post Brexit has within it the great potential to make Britain an even more unequal society than it already is.
I make no apologies for being a Remainer. The implications for this country of leaving the EU are appalling. It is a project which should be abandoned.
IMPROVING PRODUCTIVITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
There is an imperative for Britain to become more self-sufficient, not for reasons of petty nationalism or to fulfil some agrarian fantasy of localism but because, without it, in the current political climate, we risk not being able to keep ourselves fed. There are a number of levers that can be pulled.
The consumer and price
British consumers have become too used to food being sold too cheaply. In an age of austerity when many are struggling it is a tricky argument to make, but the fact remains. We need an agriculture sector in a position to invest in its base to help improve our productivity and therefore our self-sufficiency. The 10% of income (down from 20% in 1970) that we spend on food does not enable that. Many may find this unpalatable but the fact is this: unless we improve our self-sufficiency, we will be at the complete mercies of those international markets. Unless we pay a little more now, we risk paying vastly more later. This is an argument that farmers, retailers and the Government needs to engage with.
It does not conflict with my own belief in the EU that I also believe the current EU farming subsidy regime to be extremely flawed. The same view is held all over Europe, and the CAP was always going to be reformed, regardless of whether we stayed or left. Either way it needs to change.
It is a mystery to me why farmers voted in such number to leave Europe. I assume they believed the false promise that the money based on acreage would just keep rolling in after Brexit. I also assume they hoped it would free them from environmental protection legislation. Certainly, both parts of the regime are flawed.
At present we pay farmers not according to outcomes but based on what they have done. It doesn’t matter if buffer areas around farms haven’t encouraged greater biodiversity; it just matters that farmers have created buffers. A new set of environmental protections are needed in which farmers are paid on outcomes: cleaner water, better soil quality, higher biodiversity. They are custodians of our landscape; more of them need to be encouraged to follow best practice and behave as such. There could be a series of front-loaded grants to pay for work needed to produce the outcome, but what is required is the outcome not the activity.
Included in this should be an encouragement away from monocultures and into as diverse a range of agricultural activity as the landscape will allow. Too many of our calories come from too few a set of crops.
Single Farm Payment
This is the greatest blight on British farming. It has enabled inefficient farms to stagger on and, as a result, blocked a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers from coming into the sector. There is anecdotal evidence that Single Farm Payments based simply on acreage have encouraged the rise of the ‘slipper farmer’, which is to say farmers who put their feet up, slippers on, and simply do not farm but collect the subsidy.
The Single Farm Payment was designed for a post-war Europe that wanted to secure a continuous and stable supply of food as a way to stave off conflict. It was there to even out the risk faced by farming be it through disease, weather issues or price fluctuations.
As risk in agriculture is the issue, resources should be directed at managing that through the sort of state-backed insurance scheme used in North America. Farmers should get the support when they need it, rather than in some chronic manner which embeds poor practises and inefficiencies.
In food policy circles the oft-repeated mantra is the need for ‘sustainable intensification’: the ability to produce more food while having a smaller impact on the environment. It’s an exceedingly tricky bit of calculus. Gains made in one corner can lead to losses elsewhere. Large-scale livestock farms can, for example, have a much smaller carbon footprint per kilo yield than bespoke organic farms, but the impact on the water table can be dire.
So carbon footprinting is a blunt tool, but it still has much to recommend it (when combined with environmental subsidy based on outcome, as per above). Anecdotally, producers have told me that the process of engaging with it, and therefore of trying to enable a smaller carbon footprint, has led to greater efficiencies across the food chain. Examining one element of environmental cost leads to an engagement with all of it. The expertise behind carbon footprinting is now widespread. The Government should introduce a wide and easily accessible set of grants for producers both big and small, wanting to engage with the process. A lot of work has been done on this by the equivalent of DEFRA in the Republic of Ireland – Bord Bia – which has carbon footprinted the entire beef industry. There is much the UK can learn from this.
SUSTAINABILITY AND THE CONSUMER
As ever the agricultural sector will, in the end, be led by the consumer. And for the consumer what matters is knowledge. It is my firm belief that, over time, some form of sustainability rating should be introduced on food. We expect to see energy ratings on white goods like fridges and washing machines; why not on our food, given that we spend so much more on it? Such ratings would need to cover two points: the comparative sustainability of a product within its own category, and against others. You need to know which chicken product is the most sustainable AND that chicken is much more sustainable than beef.
Producers would be incentivised to get as good a rating for their food as possible; part of that would be a reduction in waste, and that has to be a good thing. Extending sustainability ratings to retailers themselves would again be an encouragement to reduce waste. It need not be mandatory, but those who refuse to participate would be telling their own story when it comes to the environment and their commitment to it.
Many in the food world, embracing a committed anti-corporatism, will argue for a food policy which encourages localism. There are arguments in favour of sourcing your food from as nearby as possible. In rural areas it is a way of supporting your local economy and your neighbour’s. It also ensures short supply chains. It provides a strong and engaging narrative.
However, do not be fooled by environmental arguments around localism. What matters most when judging environmental impact of food production is the full life cycle: you need to look at the carbon (and other inputs) not just of the trucks getting produce from field to fork, but in the farm buildings and machinery, the fertilisers and the workforce. It involves a large and complex set of metrics. When you do that the proportion of the carbon footprint caused by transport falls to between 2% and 4%. What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 25% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happen to be closer to you.
(The same arguments extend to both urban farming and ‘grow your own’. They are interesting educationally. Allotments are good for mental wellbeing and general fitness. But the carbon footprint of the food produced tends to be appalling.)
Light-touch regulation has, in effect, allowed a set of huge corporations to become custodians of our food supply chain. Scandals like that involving horsemeat suggest it is one to which they are not suited. In July 2013 I interviewed Philip Clarke, then Chief Executive of Tesco .
He made serious and compelling commitments to openness and to his suppliers, recognising that he was running more than just a business. At the very same time, the public was unaware that a criminal investigation was under way into gaping holes left in Tesco accounts and the way they were dealing with their suppliers. In short, the supermarket sector still has to prove it is up to the job it has been given.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator
In a shameful display of political cringing in the face of large corporations, every political party resisted the introduction of a grocery ombudsman to police the dysfunctional relationship between supermarkets and suppliers. Eventually, in 2013, one was introduced and the incumbent has attempted to do as good a job as possible within the regulations as drawn up. But they were written in an extremely naïve manner which showed little or no understanding of the food supply chain.
By restricting themselves just to the relationship between supermarkets and direct suppliers, they ignored the fact that farmers are often at the mercy of the supermarkets at second or third hand (or more): their produce often becomes the raw ingredients for manufactured products then supplied to the supermarkets by one or two or even more links in the chain. And all of those links can be victims of supermarket pressure on price, which pushes down to the farm gate, exacerbating the crisis in British self-sufficiency. It makes no sense. If we are going to protect farmers from short termism then the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator should be extended to the entire food supply chain: i.e. whoever farmers sell their produce to and upwards from there – not from the supermarkets down.
CONSUMER HEALTH AND FOOD CULTURE
The writer Bea Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, made a compelling argument for the health benefits for the British population as a result of EU membership, and the opening of trade in fresh fruit and vegetables.
Even allowing for the horsemeat scandal (which affected the UK food supply chain more than any other), the EU has provided a strong regulatory system which has ensured safer food and higher animal welfare than is the case elsewhere in the world.
By leaving the EU the UK will be forced to open itself up to food production practices that are far less healthy, palatable or even safe. Likewise we may end up importing much more meat produced at a much lower welfare standard than we are used to. In short, Brexit risks exposing UK consumers to much lower food standards than we have come to expect.
Suggesting EU membership has been responsible for a more vibrant food culture is, to my mind, less relevant. Yes, freedom of movement must have made the UK a more open country but, in an increasingly globalised world, it’s likely this would have happened anyway. Shortly before the referendum vote, a round-robin letter was circulated by the writer Paul Levy, and signed by many big names from the food world, which argued we were imperilling our increasingly cosmopolitan society. Compared to the risks of not being able to feed ourselves adequately, the possibility that we might have less access to well-made focaccia is an irrelevance.
Access to a labour force from elsewhere, however, is not an irrelevance. I refer you to my Observer piece on the challenges of getting the harvest in if the free movement of labour comes to an end.
Industry experts including Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation estimate we will need somewhere in the region of 500,000 worker permits a year if we are to keep our current food production active. However, there is evidence that increasing suspicion of xenophobia in the UK, encouraged by the toxic rhetoric in support of Brexit, is dissuading migrant workers from coming here. Why come to Britain when you could go to Spain, and be paid in euros, a much stronger currency which is only likely to become increasingly so?
One of the arguments for staying in the EU given by many in the niche and aesthetic end of the food world is our ability to remain in the scheme that protects traditional products through designations based on geographical origin or recipe.
While I’m obviously a part of that same food world, in the grander scheme of things, these protections seem to me an irrelevance. I am well aware I am in a minority for holding this view, but any certification which codifies a recipe – say, for a Cornish pasty or a Melton Mowbray pork pie or a particular type of cheese – fails to understand the drift of food history: that there is no such thing as an official recipe for anything; that all recipes change both over time and even within our own kitchens. Likewise, defining a product as coming from a particular area is entirely arbitrary. A brilliant Stilton could just as easily be made in Yeovil as in the precisely delineated area that a Stilton must currently come from.
I can see that these are important issues culturally but this, to my mind, is how they should be regarded: as issues of culture, to be passed out of DEFRA to the DCMS.
I find it extraordinary that, in the correspondence inviting me to the meeting of food experts called by you, your colleague Fiona Gately said that Brexit would not be part of the discussion. She later retracted that verbally; said it was of course something we could discuss. The point I made to her then and I make now is that, where our food supply is concerned, Brexit is the only subject. It is implicated in every single aspect of our food supply chain and risks imperilling the very health of the nation.
A few years ago, when discussing food security in the UK, Lord Cameron of Dillington – a farmer and first head of the Countryside Agency – said Britain was just ‘nine meals from anarchy’. It would take just three days of empty supermarket shelves, just three days of meals missed by hungry children and despairing parents, for the country to descend into massive civil unrest.
When I first heard that statement I regarded it as an interesting and diverting piece of hyperbole. Now it feels to me like a prediction.
Of all the things that were said to me when I was researching my recent an article on the importance of migrant labour to our food supply chain, the one that stayed with me most came from Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation: ‘If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country’.
Amen to that.
Please Note: Many of the points above are a summary of those in my 2013 book A Greedy Man In A Hungry World.