Food Shortages | Brexit and the 1970s [updated]

We did OK for food before we joined the EU, we’ll be fine when we leave

I have heard this statement a lot over the last few months as we get closer to the end of transition, and a period of disruption. Frankly I don’t believe it.

The UK is highly dependent on food imports – the majority of the food we eat starts in a different country and shipped over here. Mostly this is a legacy of Empire. For a very long time other countries grew our food and sent it to us cheaply. At the same time land ownership in the UK became concentrated in a very small number of families, many of which had little interest in agriculture. Land was a source of wealth and power, not food.

After WW2 the Empire was wound up, and our former colonies went their own ways. At first we were able to tie them down to long term trade deals, which guaranteed supply at a discount price. But over time they found other customers who were willing to pay more – Caribbean sugar and Canadian wheat went to the USA. While rationing ended in the mid-50s we still had shortages of food for another 20 years.

The 1970s saw a succession of food crises, sugar in 1973, bread in 1974, salt in 1975, bread again in 1977. Shortages of supply drove up prices, rising prices led to demands for higher wages, which led in turn to strikes. Supermarkets introduced rationing of sugar and bread. The TV show “The Good Life” comes from an era where panic about running out of the food led people to attempt self sufficiency.

Incredibly we even ran short of vinyl for records, delaying a Rick Wakeman triple album by 2 months.

Membership of the EU, in particular the Common Agricultural Policy, put an end to these shortages, at the expense of tying us into a dysfunctional system.

We do of course grow some food ourselves, but British farmers have experienced labour shortages as far back as records go. The first scheme to bring Eastern European seasonal agricultural workers to the UK was set up under the Attlee Government. Before then Irish picking gangs came to to the UK for work. Throughout all of this era child labour was an important part of harvest – potato picking in the North, fruit and hops in the South.

A high reliance on imports of food, combined with a reliance on imported labour for domestic production means that the risk of disruption in 2021 is very high, even if a minimal deal is agreed. We simply don’t have time to implement the systems we need to manage a deal in 3 weeks. A extended transition period would mitigate a lot of those risks, but the Government is unlikely to be that pragmatic.

To add to the mess the UK historically has had a balance of payments problem – we import more than we export. Over the last few decades this hasn’t really mattered because the flow of funds into the City of London balanced out the flow of money out of the country to pay for imports. In simple terms money coming into the UK financial services sector balances out the money that leaves the UK to buy wine, cheese and BMWs. If financial services business shifts to Frankfurt or Paris it gets harder and harder to manage that flow funds, and a Black Wednesday style run on the pound becomes more likely.

And there is a final factor that means that we can’t simply go back to how we were in the 1970s.

We eat a completely different diet. We are used to going to a supermarket to buy a massive range of food, which simply wasn’t the case pre-EU, including staples like wine or olive oil. We joined the EU at the time of the wine lake, and the UK rapidly acquired the taste for wine and foreign food. The first foreign holidays in the 1970s helped this shift. Wine shifted from being a niche product to a household mainstay in a generation.

I can remember my first ever trip to a supermarket at Gilesgate. I was in my teenage years. I was raised on Findus; fish fingers, crispy pancakes, french bread pizza. The variety of food was amazing and the ability to chose so many different items gave a feeling of connoisseurship and sophistication.

For a few years I was part of a local food scheme. Once a fortnight I would get a bag of locally grown, organic fruit and veg. I had to give it up because through January to March the only food we would get were old potatoes and cabbage. There is a limit to how much cabbage a teenager would eat, no matter how much you dress it up. There is a name for this late winter/early spring period- they hungry gap.

We could of course go back to drinking Babycham rather than Champagne, and Peach Concorde rather than Sancerre but those shifts won’t happen in 3 weeks. Domestic production of craft beer depends on imported hops, UK craft gin depends on imported juniper.

We have been told by our big customers that we should increase our stockpiles of finished product and raw materials in order to mitigate the high risk of disruption. We also know that some parts of the food supply system are expecting to impose restrictions on their own customers for at least part of next year.

As an extreme case the UK is now short of cardboard, which isn’t edible, but is a crucial part of how food is packaged and transported.

In turn I have increased my own domestic food stores – frozen vegetables, tinned fruit, rice, tinned veg. Exotic food’s are already running out of stock, and shockingly Macro is out of hummus.

I don’t think people should panic, but the risk of disruption is significant, and it is likely that even small shortages in supply will cause people to panic, and start and horde. Take sensible steps such as stocking up on frozen veg and tinned fruit.

Someone maybe should have told that to the old lady today buying 250 toilet rolls.

UPDATE 1

Over the last week or so no deal has got less likely, and hopefully we will get a deal which will allow for an implementation period (extended transition by another name).

However over the last week 2 logistics companies we work with have suffered cyber attacks. One is a major shipper of duty free goods, the other a major shipper of food ingredients. Each attack took them out of business for over a week. We still have shipments of goods that can’t be tracked.

Since the first lock down lots of logistics companies have most of their staff working from home which means a lot of reliance on IT systems to keep the business running. Improvised IT systems.

I’m not an expert of cyber crime, but it looks a lot to me like someone testing our systems for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in order to take advantage of a period of chaos in the new year. It could be a hostile power looking to cause mischief, it could be criminals looking to nick loads of valuable stuff.

I hope I am wrong, but this feels like a really risky situation.

UPDATE 2

This is the situation today in Kent

https://www.ons.gov.uk/searchdata?q=alcohol%20consumption%20uk

https://data.gov.uk/dataset/b1c634b2-6601-41b8-b8e0-ae475894304f/statistics-on-alcohol-england

2 thoughts on “Food Shortages | Brexit and the 1970s [updated]

  1. Houmous I can make in 5 minutes – so long as the Tahini and Olive Oil supplies hold out. And the lemons, chickpeas and garlic. Knowing the British food industry we could probably even manage a salt shortage.

    The problem we personally have with stockpiling is probably the same as many people – the proportions of the fridge and freezer have reversed since the early 80s – when my parents had a chest freezer which would be filled up in the monthly big shop, and the fridge contained milk, marg and eggs. I don’t recall much in the way of peppers or bags of spinach, let alone tahini.

    Modern flats/houses take an even more ‘just in time’ approach to food storage and prep.

    The interesting thing is seeing the government get in the preemptive attacks – ‘you may not be able to get the exact shape of pasta you want’ is a carefully constructed phrase that admits the free market is going to fail, while dismissing any concerns as being precious.

    The other big change in 40 years is not just the native diet, but the large number of people from other traditions – we have a lot of Kurdish and Cypriot families round here, who probably consume more houmous than the average Grauniad reader.

    Welcome to East Germany.

    1. Re; Just in time. The problems with food supply aren’t just about supplies to customers, but supplies to food businesses, takeaways, caterers. We use specialist logistic and supply companies for some of our ingredients – due to a cyber attack these are all down at the moment. We’ve been waiting for a shipment for 2 weeks, and thee is no idea where it is!!

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