As food prices surge worldwide a number of countries are looking to restrict their exports of staples to show their own populations they are doing something about shortages and food inflation. The more restrictions there are the poorer the world will be. International specialisation is a good thing. It means we can all benefit from production where the costs are lowest, the climate is most suited and the skills well honed.
However, when people get hungry or when populations get angry about food prices governments have to listen. They may often act in ways which relieve the temporary pressure on them whilst making the underlying position worse. In this case democracies like India, bureaucracies like the EU, and tyrannies can all act in the same perverse way, to â€œprotectâ€ domestic husbandry and impede world trade. One of the most worrying features of the Obama offering to the US public is the incipient protectionism.
In such a world the UKâ€™s position is very exposed. Under the current government we have become ever more reliant on imported foods. We have always been dependent on overseas trade to bring us tropical and Mediterranean fruits. We are now also dependent on overseas trade for many temperate fruits, vegetables, meat and other basics. The EUâ€™s Common Agricultural Policy, designed on the continent with a view to overcome World War style shortages, has succeeded in damaging UK agriculture substantially. The Common Fisheries Policy has been a hammer blow to our once flourishing and well stocked fishery.
The EU has conspired against the UK in several ways. The EUâ€™s strong and clumsy responses to animal disease prevented UK meat trade for long periods and undermined the reputation of some British products at crucial times. The distribution of subsidies meant it was often better for a UK farmer to set aside the land for environmental purposes rather than to grow anything. The UK was left short of milk quota for its own purposes so ended up having to import milk products from the continent. Our fishery was opened up to predatory large trawlers from Spain, Denmark and other European maritime centres, leading to overfishing and damage to the sea bed.
Today the threat of world shortages should concentrate the mind of Ministers and policy makers. We cannot afford to be locked in to these failed and backward looking policies. At current market prices the UK should be able to produce a lot more of its grain, meat and milk without subsidy. It does not need EU interference making that more difficult. We need an independent fishery where we can pace the use of it to restore the stocks, supervising the kind of nets and boats used to limit the damage.
The UK is a relatively rich country, and will be able to import food at a price to meet its demands. Lower income families will be squeezed. However, the reason why our dependence on imported food has risen so much is partly the unfair and unsuccessful policies pursued by the EU in this field. In a world lurching to some more protectionism we need to be aware, and to be allowing the market to strengthen the amount we produce at home. There is plenty of land to bring back into production, and plenty of scope for more market gardening, orchards, vineyards and the rest.