Having dinner with a friend the other night, the old World War II campaign of ‘Dig for Victory’ came up. He hadn’t heard of it. I was stunned, as he told me his family had an allotment — something, he said, he ‘couldn’t see the point of.’ I was explaining that allotments are left over from the Dig for Victory campaign, where, in the face of severe rationing the government turned nearly all usable space into vegetable patches. In short, Britain tried to feed itself using its own land.

Prioritising Food Security

When I got home, I did some more research about ‘Dig for Victory’ and about the current state of Britain’s farming and how we got here. Historically speaking, Britain’s farmers have had an incredibly bumpy ride. In the late 1800s, farming fell prey to rapacious free trade deals with the then-burgeoning American prairies, with a slight change of fortune around the First World War. However, in the interwar years, farming had an even more drastic decline — by the mid-1930s, land was selling at well under half of the price it had been in the Victorian era. Of course, World War II and the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign changed all of this. Suddenly, there was an impetus to use all the fields Britain had. As rationing continued after the end of the war, Atlee’s government put in the Agricultural Act that ensured a system of subsidies kept Britain’s wheat chaffed. As we joined the EU and its precursors, the government always made sure that Britain’s farms were protected. Indeed, in 1973, Britain was fully self-sufficient in wheat. Currently, just 54 per cent of the food on our plates is produced in the UK, and the UK produces about 60 per cent of its own food for domestic consumption by value. The government should be aiming to increase this number, for ecological, health, and food security reasons.

In saying this, I’m thinking about Ukraine, Europe’s ‘breadbasket,’ and about the now-collapsed grain deal. This was the deal where despite the conflict, Russia allowed grain from Ukraine to be exported via the Black Sea. Most of this grain went to developing nations and not to the UK, but it nevertheless shows how the interconnectedness of the world today can, unfortunately, be weaponised. What is apparent, is that there is a clear need for food security. One way of guaranteeing this is by growing our own food, on our own soil.

An Environmental Boost

The argument for Britain becoming more self-sufficient extends beyond ordinary fearmongering. There are sound ecological reasons too. It can hardly be good for the environment if, at nearly every supermarket, there are mangoes from India and dragon fruit from Mexico. The amount of food miles accumulated by an average supermarket is stupendous. Surely it makes more sense to grow and transport our own food around the country, as opposed to relying on carbon-heavy imports? Allotments, community gardens, and vertical farms are all feasible, viable options to increase the amount of fresh, local food the average citizen can buy. There’s also the slim chance that some people may start to experience the joy of trying to grow rhubarbs and potatoes themselves. Obviously, our climate doesn’t permit the cultivation of mangoes and coconuts. I’m talking more about temperate foodstuffs. If we could become self-sufficient on these alone, our carbon footprint would dramatically reduce.

Can We Afford To Grow Our Own?

And yet, following the recent Free Trade Agreement made with Australia, quite the opposite is bound to happen. The FTA came into force at the end of May 2023. As the National Farmers Union puts it: ‘… this FTA simply opens up UK agricultural markets for Australian produce, whether or not produced to the same standards that are legally required of UK farmers.’

One consequence is that UK farmers will now have to compete with Australian lamb and beef. The plan is to cut subsidies that British farmers rely on over the next fifteen or so years. This initiative makes the idea of affordable, British-sourced food less realistic once protections are removed and prices rise. Instead of building up, via protectionist economic strategies, Britain’s capacity for growing its own food, the government is exposing our markets to unprecedented levels of competition. It’s eerie how reminiscent of the late 1800s this situation is.

Britain is a nation that likes to wax lyrical about our countryside and our farms. Think of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘green and pleasant land’ and about Stanley Baldwin talking of ‘the sight of a plough coming over the brow of the hill.’ We also have our stereotypes about farmers: Barbour-wearing; Tory-voting. The Conservatives have always been the party, allegedly, that defends the interests of the agricultural sector. Yet this generation of Tories seems to have sold the farmers down the river with the FTA with Australia. Clearly, British farming is politically expendable to them.

Presently, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we seize the moment, learning the lessons that Ukraine and the climate crisis have taught us, and build up Britain’s farms? Or do we resign them to history?

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