Things in our supermarkets may change but perhaps ‘not the same’, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’!
We have all become accustomed to shopping in a large supermarket and getting pretty much anything we want – from strawberries and melons in winter to world food aisles filled with all manner of products, no matter what the season! Spoilt for choice.
So, I am curious, With possible supply-chain disruption and even shortages, we may not have all that choice available to us anymore – but is that necessarily a bad thing? Could we show some resilience and adapt?
We are enduring complex times, with Brexit and COVID-19. The UK derives a third of its food from Europe and the events that unfolded in December with lorry queues and the government’s panic over trying to lift the ban showed us that things will be likely be different from now on.
In December, the Guardian reported that UK supermarkets predicted shortages of lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruits. Yet, Christmas and New Year came and went and my feeling is that the disruption to our plates in most cases was ‘minimal’.
As always, though, it’s those people on low incomes and dire food difficulties that need urgent help. Although Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby was ignored when he highlighted this in the summer, it wasn’t until Marcus Rashford, a Manchester United player took it upon himself to articulate concern and take action publicly, that the government listened!
It seems that the UK is simply looking to import more from elsewhere, beginning with the much-hyped trade deal with the US. Under WTO rules, supermarkets and other importers would have to pay substantial tariffs on many foods they bring in from the EU. Meat and dairy products face particularly high tariffs, but many other areas including fruit and vegetables would be also affected.
The government reckons prices should rise less than 2% due to tariffs. Tesco has said prices could rise between 3% to 5% on average but significantly more on items such as imported Brie cheese. In the short term, shops could absorb those extra costs themselves. But in the longer term they would likely pass some or all of that cost on to customers, in the form of higher prices.
Couldn't we just produce more food in the UK?
More than half of all food consumed in the UK is currently produced in the UK. That proportion could be increased, but there are issues. Some food is just easier and cheaper to produce in sunnier places, especially when it's out of season in the UK. The UK could seek new suppliers for those products outside the EU, buying from Morocco instead of from Greece or Italy, for instance. But those imports may also be subject to tariffs, and longer distances would mean higher transport costs.
UK meat producers say that tariffs make it impossible to export animal parts. Farming and food processing also currently employ large numbers of migrants from the EU, who will find it harder to enter the UK when the new rules come into force.
This could make it more difficult to scale up food production.
Previous generations faced food rationing and real shortages and although our situation is not anywhere as severe, maybe we can start to enjoy local seasonal fruit and veg as they become available? We have created a culture where melons in December are an essential requirement. Seriously?
So, there could be some food shortages in the future, perhaps we can accept that we have been spoilt for choice and now a time has come to address our demand for ‘everything always’ and make a difference by being happier with less?