Guest View

By Marion MacCormick

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee

"Small producers and farm shops have turned out to be a godsend!”

That was just one of the positive sound bites from the EFRA report in July, which included all of the 5000 responses comments from the public, and which was a little less flattering on most other fronts.

The report criticised the lack of readiness from the UK government and the extent to which shelves emptied and the public resorted to panic buying and ensuing impact of the lockdown.

One of the most striking elements of the EFRA report are the points around ‘food insecurity’ rather than ‘food security’, which is one of the first times it really struck me that this is a distinct possibility given all of the pressure on our supply chains might potentially face if the pandemic prevails and a 'no deal' becomes a reality.

The UK Government’s response, however, was considerably less worried, unperturbed even and the response to the EFRA report issued in the last fortnight lacked any degree or urgency.

In fact, I cannot believe the limp response to these concerns which seemed more like a PR critique on how to execute a branding exercise next time around. The government’s learning seemed to be that any future communications messaging should be more aligned and joined up.

The irony from this is that I am not sure they are still managing that on a day-to-day basis, never mind if we had another rush on our supermarket shelves, or any potential shortages. There is a very real prospect of shortages occurring on daily staples we take for granted as a result of disrupted cross border supplies if the no deal rhetoric prevails, and materialises at the end of December, 2020.

Alongside this debacle, in the same corridors of power, there has been resistance to the passage of the Agricultural Bill, with adaptations along the way. The House of Lords came out strongly in scrutinising the Bill and in support of defending our standards and welfare (307 to 212 votes) but, despite this, the final Parliamentary vote drove a coach and horses through some recommended legal safeguards.

Big questions now sit around the hope of protecting our current regime of high standards and husbandry grounded in the welfare of our livestock. As if agriculture has not got enough to worry about with an uncertain playing field ahead.

What the government did promise, however, in their analysis of the EFRA criticisms to the Covid-19 crisis was, that they would continue to monitor the issue of food insecurity. I might be more naïve than I thought, but I am not sure that is any comfort for some of the more vulnerable parts of society.

If our food supply is truly disrupted and coronavirus cases increase further, there is a greater prospect on the horizon of more empty shelves, with the responsibility falling to supermarket staff and busy online channels to fill the gaps.

There will be opportunities in all of this and I am sure many of our savvy small producers, and farm shops, will be even more forearmed this time and at the ready to read the signs, and deliver from the local larder!