All my life, the widely shared assumption has been that there will always be food to buy – albeit at a price. No more. Suddenly, Russia’s successful blockade of Ukraine, choking off its crucially important exports of grain and oilseeds, has challenged all that. The west is right to hail Ukraine’s remarkable achievements on the battlefield – but Russia holds cards in this war that may yet prove to its decisive advantage. When the UN secretary-general warns of the spectre of a world food shortage, take notice. Equally, the governor of the Bank of England has been much derided for warning of a food apocalypse: he may choose his words clumsily, but he is right.
What is provoking these warnings is that there is no way to replace Ukrainian grain exports, which constitute 9% of the world’s, made worse by the decline in Russia’s grain exports. Only a fraction of Ukraine’s cereal harvests can find their way into global markets via road or through ports in Romania – and Russia has no intention of lifting its blockade while it faces sanctions that may last years, given the stalemate in Ukraine.
The price of grain is thus certain to rise – it is already 59% higher than in January – reflecting that there is less to go around. Those who can’t pay will simply go without, raising the prospect of famine spreading to hundreds of millions in poorer countries and a new flood of refugees.
Nor will Britain be unaffected, although it is largely self-sufficient in grain. Overall, we rely on imports to meet around half our food demands. All over the world, countries facing shortages of grain and other foodstuffs are simply halting their food exports; already, 22 countries have prohibited 10% of all food trade. Our four major food suppliers are our EU neighbours and former partners, now all too often turned into enemies: France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Yet, just at this moment the Johnson government, with its habitual reckless incompetence and obsessive hatred of all things EU related, is prepared to risk an EU trade war by unilaterally abrogating the Brexit treaty. The UK may not want to damage crucial EU food imports, already deferring any regulatory checks until the end of next year. But why should EU member states play ball with a country whose leader they regard as a deceitful clown in hock to the worst of his party’s right, who never loses the chance to criticise the common agricultural policy (CAP), built to ensure European food security?
Suddenly the CAP looks like a strategic asset, with the EU recently moving to strengthen its farmers’ productive capacity and self-sufficiency in ways wholly at odds with Britain’s disdainful neglect of its own farmers. The EU may decide in response to Britain’s provocation that EU food security is of paramount importance, directing food exports only to where there is more need than Britain – for example, increasing its already hefty food support to Ukraine – or just making haulage and shipping regulatory requirements even tougher. They can do so, secure that EU producers can sell their food elsewhere, so creating food shortages in Britain.
If the EU does not wish to go so far, it has other effective levers to make Boris Johnson back down. Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of fertilisers, whose price has now soared 300% following the west’s trade sanctions. The UK produces only two-fifths of the fertiliser our farmers need, the balance imported mainly from the EU, Germany in particular.
Fertiliser and chemical production is an area where Brexit UK sees “opportunity” in diverging from EU single market rules that assure high product and safety standards, and is a key import into Northern Ireland. The EU has only to suspend or curtail EU fertiliser exports to Britain, concerned about our desire to weaken those rules, to crucify British agricultural production, which is already reeling from sky-high feed and fuel costs.
We are so badly governed by ministers and a party living in a sealed right-wing bubble that food rationing in 2023 is a real risk. More Brexit voters might think they were lied to. The larger point is that confidence over the past 30 years that globalisation was here to stay has led to the world’s food production and distribution system becoming profoundly interdependent, concentrated in a few countries and a few powerful agribusiness companies. As my colleague George Monbiot argues in his powerful book Regenesis, the system has become ever more market-based and less resilient, with some countries, notably Britain, assuming that there was no need for wasteful things like storage facilities, food reserves or ensuring strong domestic environmentally sustainable production.
Food, animal feed and fertilisers would flow seamlessly through safe international supply chains: domestic farmers’ margins could be squeezed to the bone. “Global” Britain could take this one step further, throwing off the crippling “shackles” of the CAP and buying cheap food from wherever, careless of UK farmers, quality food and the environment – hence the absurd trade deal dramatically favouring Australian farm producers over British ones, one of foreign secretary Liz Truss’s proudest achievements to please the Brexit right.
Today the whole intellectual edifice looks profoundly stupid – even dangerous. Resilience and sustainability in food production and distribution, along with ensuring everyone can afford to eat a healthy diet, constitute a foundational building block in our civilisation – even if mocked by Tory backbenchers and undermined by Brexiters.
Last week’s rise in inflation to 9% was driven by uncapped energy bills and escalating food prices. Britain’s inflation rate – the highest in the G7 – is because we have the least resilient, most market-based system for delivering key goods and services, and we are not a member of one of the big blocs partly able to protect itself from worldwide trends. We are a cork being thrown helplessly around the global ocean.
The curtain is finally coming down on the great Thatcherite experiment. The tragic pity is that so many millions are going to find out the hardest way – through eating crap food or, worse, going hungry – just how wrong-headed their leaders have been.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist