05 July 2022

Opinion from Adrian Leopard & Co

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Food supply has had a real shock to the system. Can we learn from this? How about a tax-free home production regime?
Adrian Leopard 390

Food supply has had a real shock to the system. Can we learn from this? How about a tax-free home production regime?

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One thing we cannot do without is food. We do not want to suffer the same shock again as we have just had to endure

We take it for granted, don’t we? We need some groceries so off we trot to the supermarket and in this day and age they are so well stocked that you can get just about anything you want including unusual foods and ingredients for foreign style cooking. It’s marvellous, isn’t it?

This was all wonderful until Covid-19 arrived and suddenly we were faced with a lockdown and all sorts of issues in relation to food supply – a real shock to the system. It may come as a surprise to learn that the UK exports some £23 billion worth of food every year but then we import half of our food from abroad. Of course on the face of it, it sounds nonsensical – all those transport costs and production of CO2 seem to be somewhat self-defeating.

The trouble is of course that you cannot get everything you want produced in this country. For example, the UK is really not a suitable climate for the production of avocados and why would you when these come from countries like Israel and California where they are really expert at it.

Take another one of our country’s favourite foods – roast lamb. Delicious. In fact the UK could be more or less self-sufficient in lamb production – a great Welsh product. However, the human being being as fickle as he is, he wants more legs than he does shoulders so we have to import legs and export shoulders. What nonsense! Wales exports between 35% and 40% of its lamb.

In fact the statistics are interesting. Our imports of meat amount to about £6.6 billion whereas our exports amount to £2.1 billion. With fruit and vegetables, our imports amount to £11.5 billion whilst we export £1.3 billion. But then our principal problem is climate – so many other countries in the world are able to grow all around the year whereas we cannot.

So when Covid-19 took control, suddenly crises started to arise and supermarkets found themselves under pressure – lack of flour, pasta, eggs and of course loo rolls. We saw people hoarding and as a result shortages became an issue so these shops had to work out ways of rationing. On the other hand, milk was being poured down drains. Restaurants and pubs closed overnight and in fact demand dropped so there was actually a food surplus. It does seem strange because you would suppose that people would consume the same amount of food whether at home or out at a restaurant. Evidently not! The natural balance of supply and demand was put under a pressure probably not experienced for decades.

Interestingly however, the public have resorted to local farm shops and local grocery shops like village stores which have seen a massive increase in business. Strangely these outlets seemed to have better lines of supply and availability and they did not have the inconvenience of queueing outside in lines 2 metres apart. There were other advantages too – less travelling; better quality and locally produced produce and in a small way enhancing the community. Perhaps we can look forward to an increase in the use of these outlets as part of a revitalisation of the countryside.

But there is now a mood which says we need to be able to avoid a shock to the system like this again. During the pandemic we have seen new lines of supply created. Some while ago we commented on the difficulty in getting fish. There was plenty of fish and plenty of consumers but little in the way of supply. New lines had to be opened up to get the fish from the port to the local shops. Supermarkets shut down their fish counters – extraordinary. Worse the fishermen had to shut down their boats because of supply issues and they could not actually sell it.

The new mood also is thinking about how we can be more self-sufficient in the UK and rely less on imports. One school of thought is that with the introduction of new technology, things can be changed greatly. For example “vertical farming” enables vast quantities of food to be produced in small spaces – ideal for a country which does not have enough space as it is and is already over-populated. These new techniques will reduce the need also for migrant labour but could create new “high tech” jobs to attract our young people. With luck technology can assist in the avoidance of environmental destruction.

For all the bad it has brought, there have been some spin-off benefits from coronavirus and one of them is that it has most certainly concentrated the mind on the most basic of our needs – our food supply.

We are certainly at a cross roads in so many ways. With Brexit now coming into place, the country has the opportunity to create a whole new range of import and export lines world-wide – it is an exciting time.

Is there anything we as individuals can do? Well possibly there is. Whilst large numbers of our population live in urban areas with no gardens, huge numbers of people do have gardens and perhaps it is a time to think about growing some of the things we like for ourselves. Fruit trees can be very productive; put up a small greenhouse and grow your own tomatoes and other items. Perhaps a small vegetable garden might be an idea or what about keeping chickens? There is nothing like a free range egg for breakfast!

And you do not necessarily need a garden – what about the roof of your block of flats or perhaps you have a balcony? And you can learn how to do all of this free of charge by watching Monty Don on Gardeners’ World!

Perhaps government could be persuaded to offer some form of encouragement to the population to turn parts of their gardens into areas of production. Grants towards greenhouses; tax free regimes if you sell home grown produce. No doubt many ideas could be produced. In Germany you can distil your own schnapps up to defined limits and sell it completely tax free! The only tax you pay is to give a portion of your production to the local authority (although one wonders what they do with it!) This is part of their domestic economy.

Imagine this – a local vegetable production economy all tax free for those working in it – no administration and it would get people outdoors doing healthy work in the garden instead of sitting inside watching the television. In Guernsey you can drive around the island and see little tables outside people’s houses with some produce or other on them and an honesty box. It’s called “hedge veg”. I do not suppose that the Administrator of Taxes has any great interest in that at all! In the UK this could be a new form of economic activity which would cost the exchequer not a single penny. The benefits could be significant but even growing your own herbs makes it worthwhile.

At our present watershed, let’s take advantage of the fact that we are at a big crossroads and as a nation we can be very innovative. Here’s our chance.

Adrian Leopard 24-07-20

Photo Dan Gold

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