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Image: Pexels / Tom Fisk
Image: Pexels / Tom Fisk

Blocking imports is a fast track to food insecurity

Jack Rowlett
April 9, 2024

British farmers took their tractors to the capital last week, demanding the Government block "substandard" imports and take the issue of food security more seriously. Unfortunately, these goals are irreconcilable. While campaign groups like Save British Farming frame their arguments as what's best for the country, the reality is anything but. 

Protectionism will push up prices, reduce choice, and make us more vulnerable to shocks in the food supply. The only way to keep food on our plates long-term is through free trade and competition.

In terms of food policy, our goal should be to balance abundance, affordability, and security. Free trade clearly delivers abundance – go into any supermarket, and you can easily access good food from all over the world. Thanks to trade deals with countries like Morocco, British consumers can enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of the domestic growing season. Free trade also encourages innovation and drives down prices by increasing competition.

Some might argue that climate change and increased global conflict mean we should onshore most of our food production, no matter the cost. But this is a false binary. The answer to securing the food supply in an unpredictable age is more diversification, not less. 

Just as a savvy investor spreads their money across different sectors to minimise risk, a country needs multiple trade partners to ensure a stable food supply. If one partner is affected by a regional war or extreme weather event, others can help fill the gap. Overreliance on domestic production leaves us vulnerable to the same risks – a single drought or flood could devastate British agriculture, leaving us with empty shelves and soaring prices.

History shows that self-sufficiency is not a prerequisite for national resilience. Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for at least two centuries. This didn’t stop us from winning two world wars. Famine and serious food shortages used to be a common fear, but in the era of global trade they’re scarcely mentioned as serious prospects for Britain.

The answer to securing the food supply in an unpredictable age is more diversification, not less Quote

The problem with groups like Save British Farming is that they prioritise the needs of a narrow set of special interests over those of the country as a whole. When farmers complain that foreign imports are too cheap to compete with, what they're really saying is that they want to keep food prices high to protect their own bottom line. As we emerge from a recession and cost-of-living crisis, this is something British consumers can ill afford.

The EU provides a cautionary tale of what happens when politicians cave to the demands of a powerful agricultural lobby. External tariffs and the Common Agricultural Policy have kept European food prices artificially high for decades. When foreign competitors develop innovative ways to increase yields and cut costs, such as genetic engineering, the EU bans them rather than encouraging its own producers to adapt. More recently, European leaders have bowed to pressure from protesting farmers by curbing cheap Ukrainian grain imports, betraying an ally at war and forcing consumers to pay more for basic staples.

Britain's departure from the EU gives us a chance to chart a different course. We must not let protests from a vocal minority of farmers stand in the way of trade deals. More trade means more choice, lower costs, and a more resilient food supply for all Britons. At the same time, we must ensure that British agriculture has the tools it needs to innovate and compete in a global market. This means accelerating our regulatory framework for genetic engineering to give British growers access to cutting-edge crop varieties, as well as taking a liberal approach to AI and other technologies that can help to boost productivity and sustainability.

In the end, the choice is clear: we can either cling to a romanticised vision of British agriculture and pay the price in higher costs and reduced security, or we can embrace the benefits of free trade and competition to build a more abundant, affordable, and resilient food system for the 21st century. For the sake of British consumers and our long-term national interest, we’d better hope our politicians make the right decision.

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Jack Rowlett is a political commentator with Young Voices UK. You can find him on X @Jack_Nostalgic.

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