The news coming out of Moscow that Russia has banned food imports from certain countries, including the UK, is a reminder of how food can be used as a political tool. Whilst the ban on meat, fish and dairy won’t significantly affect the UK, for which Russia is a small export market, one can still assume that phone calls between Defra and Number 10 have been suitably fervid since the news first broke.
Russia’s move has prompted reflections on our own food security. In a timely reminder of the UK’s lack of self-sufficiency, the NFU, somewhat bombastically, declared that today would be the day that the year's food supply would run out without imports. Self-sufficiency should not be confused with food security and there is no imminent threat of the UK being unable to feed itself, or at least having the volume of food necessary to feed itself (whether people can access that food is another debate entirely) but the less we're able to meet our own food and energy needs the less moral fortitude we're able to show during foreign policy crises like that in the Ukraine.
Russia is now likely to look increasingly to Brazil and Argentina for its meat and dairy imports where it will compete with the UK and the rest of Europe. The UK has historically been a trading nation and there are commodities we must import but there’s a strong argument to be made that the current balance of 60% self-sufficiency feels a little too low and makes the UK overly exposed when global food prices spike as in 2008. A policy that aims to maximise the domestic supply of sustainable food (and by that I don’t simply mean producing more food but addressing issues around what we produce – more fruit and veg, less meat and dairy - how we produce it; how much food we consume; and how much we waste) seems entirely sensible in the face of global financial and political instability.
Whilst 100% self-sufficiency is neither realistic nor desirable, 70-75%% self-sufficiency shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility, particularly if more policies that encourage sustainable, diverse agriculture and small-scale farming are adopted. Achieving this will require government support as well as cooperation throughout the supply chain not least from supermarkets many of which say they want to source more British produce but are often reluctant to offer the long-term security of contracts and prices that would enable farmers, especially small-scale farmers, to make the necessary investments in capacity.
In reality, the direction of travel from Western governments is in the opposite direction, with the secretive TTIP trade talks aimed at further reducing barriers to transatlantic trade (some claim at the expense of human and animal health). All the while trade liberalisation is in the ascendancy, food will continue to be used as a powerful political weapon.