Pandemic and Brexit catalysts to creating self-sufficient nation?

19 May, 2020
Alex Demetriou

The coronavirus pandemic has seen supermarkets shelves stripped bare by stockpiling Brits, resulting in the supply chain struggling to keep up with the surge in demand. The movement of food has been disrupted like never before, with international travel limited and social distancing restrictions, making operating to meet the demand more challenging.

These challenges, could however, create an opportunity for the UK to become a more self-sufficient food producing nation.

The UK is currently between 50% - 60% self-sufficient in terms of food production, with 30% coming from Europe and the remainder from the Americas, Africa and the rest of the world. The highest self-sufficiency the UK has achieved in recent history was in 1984, when it was as high as 82%, but that has gradually decreased over the decades.

Some food items remain in high production in the UK, such as beef and cheese, where the UK produces 80% of what it requires. However, this is not the case for other categories such as tomatoes, where 50% is imported, or for items that do not grow in the UK, such as lemons, where the UK relies on Spain and South America for supply.

As consumers, we are used to having what we want, when we want it. Of course, that has a huge impact on global footprint with the movement of product from all over the world. Perhaps this re-set will guide us to moving back to be more seasonal eaters. For example, we grow amazing broccoli in the UK, yet we still import it because we want it 12 months a year, rather than seven months a year.

In order to become more self-sufficient, some experts say we will need to reduce the amount of meat we eat, so that we can use land more efficiently. Therefore, the recent movement towards vegan and flexitarian diets could play a role in the future landscape of our food production, with land currently being used for cattle used instead for lentils and pulses.

Restaurants and Gastro Pubs can play a part in helping us all to become more seasonal eaters, by adjusting their menus appropriately. We also know that innovation in these sectors drives further innovation in the home where people will try and replicate dishes. We have amazing chefs in the UK with wonderful creativity, they could just hold the key to unlocking part of this opportunity.

Welfare standards of food production should also be considered in the UK’s ability to be a more self-sufficient society. The welfare standards being exceptionally high in the UK, it should mean we support the production of more food here. We should also have an appreciation as to how high British farming standards are, while we should exercise some caution when consuming produce from countries where standards are lower. For instance, the use of antibiotic growth promoters, chlorine washes for poultry production and growth promoting hormones are allowed in some countries but are banned in the UK. Furthermore, African Swine Flu has resulted in the culling of over 100m pigs globally, while the UK is yet to record a single case.

The supply chain challenge exposed by the coronavirus pandemic could be exasperated further when the UK moves beyond the current transition period of Brexit, which is due to cease at the end of this year, and new trade restrictions and taxes are enforced. This could create further opportunity for the UK to become self-sufficient, particularly via the fishing industry.

What the government decides to do with British fisheries post Brexit could also play a vital role in our move to be a more self-sufficient nation. Taking back control of the UK’s fishing zone could help, although that may also involve a change in eating habits. The UK still imports twice as much fish as it exports, with the top five species consumed being cod, tuna, prawns, salmon and haddock. Yet, the UK exports higher value seafood including crab, scallops and langoustine to France, Italy and Spain, who eat these items more regularly than we currently do in the UK.

Post the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit, could both be catalysts for the UK to lead a more self-sufficient way of life. This could act as a partial re-set with the UK population being less wasteful and having a greater appreciation of UK farmers, and indeed a greater appreciation as to how good the quality of UK produce is.

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