It’s almost inconceivable—citizens of a modern, wealthy nation like the United Kingdom, running out of food. But it could happen.
That’s the stark warning from a British parliamentary committee this week. The culprits include the obvious: COVID-19 and climate change; as well as the slightly less so: Brexit.
Divorce from the European Union could put more strain on British food supplies than even the pandemic—which saw a spate of supermarket self-emptying mania—the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned yesterday.
Their reasoning is clear. As the spectre of coronavirus loomed and Brits retreated behind closed doors, overseas food imports kept the country supplied. A healthy chunk of the provisions came from Europe—which, in a given year, is the source of almost a third of UK sustenance.
Indeed, when it comes to certain foods—particularly fruit and vegetables—British dependence on the continent is near total. Just about every olive and spinach leaf consumed in Britain comes from Europe, for instance; though the UK is thoroughly self-sufficient in the likes of eggs and dairy.
If a post-Brexit free trade deal isn’t agreed by the end of the year, as seems evermore likely, tariffs will be imposed—and so imports will wane, or consumer prices will rise. Even a seemingly small levy—say, 6%—would add up quickly, lumping Brits with a collective bill stretching into the tens-of-millions.
Any fluctuation in the supply of produce would, regrettably, hit the poorest in society the hardest. This was the case with coronavirus, which saw the most affordable foods fly off of the shelves first, forcing those in need to turn to food banks, the use of which doubled during lockdown.
A full 10% of Britain’s population is nutritionally impoverished, with 6.6 million individuals lacking the physical or economic access to sufficient sustenance. Troublingly, a quarter of these—1.7 million—are children.
The government remains upbeat, however. The COVID-19 crisis has shown how diverse and resilient the nation’s food supply chain is, a spokesperson said, adding that, facing “unprecedented pressures”, services had not collapsed.
Regardless, lawmakers have demanded that a new minister for food security be appointed, to ensure that the chaos witnessed in the early days of the pandemic is not repeated. A further, more radical step has also been mooted: enshrining in British law a right to food.
With a series of potentially disastrous events on collision course—a second spike in coronavirus cases, a pandemic-induced recession, and a no-deal Brexit—so bold a move might be necessary.