“Be sure you know the conditions of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” – The Bible, Proverbs 27: 34-35
The Guardian reports today that an adviser to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer – remember that he’s in the job now because the previous incumbent resigned because of a political fight involving who controls his advisers – is claiming that the UK’s fishing and farming sectors should be seen as expendable because they only constitute 1% of the UK’s GDP thus only make up something like a rounding error in the national scheme of things. Instead, he claims, the UK should become more like Singapore and just buy in the food we need. While the UK Government is distancing itself from the comments, it’s not the first time that those in those offices have promoted such views.
Let’s have dive into the data to pull out some of the implications of this potential policy.
A Clouded Lens
The first thing to say about the idea that farming is expendable is that it is an idea that comes entirely from a paradigm of measuring the size and strength of an economy entirely by boiling it down to GDP. GDP becomes the sole measure of importance and anything that isn’t GDP cannot even be considered – not even to the point of dismissing it.
So trading off 1% of the country’s GDP in exchange for, say, boosting financial services by more than 1% of GDP looks like a great deal. We could gamble money around the stock market and use the winnings to buy food!
Never mind the fact that boosting financial services has proven conclusively to cause a net drag on the economy so this plan would further shrink the economy.
Never mind that concentrating even more wealth into the hands of the richest is unlikely to begin to cause the “trickle down” economics that we were promised would happen every other time we’ve handed them the chequebook and pen.
A economy based on wellbeing where the sustainability of the planet and the inclusion of all in society are placed paramount would not make such a calculation. At best, such a wellbeing approach would say that if increasing sustainability and inclusion led to GDP growth then that’s acceptable and if increasing both led to a decrease in GDP, that’s also acceptable (Note that this approach is itself distinct from whitewashed terms like “sustainable growth” and “inclusive growth” where growth is still prioritised but merely moderated).
Under a wellbeing economy, we’d be looking at food production as a matter of food security – ensuring that everyone in the country has enough to eat – of environmental security – ensuring that food production and delivery doesn’t further destroy the planet – and of building a society that we actually want to live in – That only 1% of our economy works in food production is a sign of a very, very different society from the one we had just a few centuries ago when somewhere between half and three quarters of people worked the land.
So let’s look at the UK right now and explore what abandoning domestic food production might mean in the data.
Feeding the Country
Around 53% of the food consumed in the UK is produced in the UK with the rest originating from somewhere else (28% comes from the EU with Africa, North America, South America and Asia each contributing around 4%).
Now this doesn’t mean that the UK only produces enough food to feed 53% of people if imports were switched off tomorrow. The UK also exports food so conceivably some of that would be redirected (though we may prefer to eat barley than drink export whisky but that’s an analysis that is a level too deep for now).
There is a measure known as the production to supply ratio which directly measures the amount of food produced in the UK compared to the amount consumed. That figure is currently around 60%. To be fair, reaching 100% or being entirely self-sufficient without imports is probably not desirable especially when one considers the geographical limitations of a nation and the general desire to access a wide variety of food. Scotland might be well known for its whisky but it is less well known as a chocolate and coffee producer – the annual production output of which being approximately zero. But heading with abandon for the other extreme is hardly a more rational reaction.
In 2018, the UK imported around 40 million tonnes of food. If we’re going to switch off domestic production then let’s keep things fairly simply and say that we’d need to double those imports to keep everyone fed.
The UK imported around 250 million tonnes of goods in 2018 – of which, around half was oil, gas and other petroleum products. Adding another 40 Megatonnes to the remaining import demand is going to seriously challenge the UK’s port infrastructure. This should be a major concern given that we know that that port infrastructure was already not fit for purpose even pre-Brexit. The challenges of Brexit itself are going to place further strain on this system. Policies which add even further to this could well prove too much.
Another thing to consider here is that relying on imports – like Singapore – is something that generally requires a ready source of foreign currency with which to pay for them. Maintaining massive and growing trade deficits without the means to do this is often linked to devaluations in the domestic currency which makes future imports more expensive.
In conventional economic theory, more expensive imports would be countered by making domestic production more favourable again which could encourage fewer imports and more exports, leading to a strengthening of the currency until some kind of equilibrium is reached.
What these simplistic textbook models miss though is that mothballed factories take time to switch on again. If institutional memory is lost, it’ll take longer. If the factories are destroyed altogether then it’ll take longer still.
And farms aren’t factories. All of the above still applies but if herds and seedstock are lost entirely then a “black-start” simply may not be possible on any kind of reasonable timescale.
One Nation, Under Valued
Scotland has long had a history of being overlooked within the Union – especially by policy-makers in London who base their policies on GDP-density maps. When it is considered, it is too often through the lens of “will this policy encourage or discourage Scottish separatism?”.
In this case, it is much more likely to be the former.
Some 14% of the income generated from farming in the UK comes from Scotland so a “raze the farms” policy is going to disproportionately impact Scotland – more than 67,000 people would be put out of work just in terms of direct employment alone. Obviously, Scotland’s rural areas would be devastated right at a moment in time when we really need them to transform and protect the land from the coming climate emergency.
But there’s another issue in here relating to the impact of this proposal on the ports infrastructure.
Decades of centralisation towards London has badly degraded Scotland’s ability to import and export goods – whilst around 14% of the tonnage handled at UK ports is in Scotland (again, much of it petrochemical), this figure has halved since the early 2000s.
Scotland does obviously receive imports of food but the costs of these imports are driven by distance and driving goods by road is a particularly expensive means of transport. This is borne out in Scotland’s internal trade statistics which shows a very strong trade-gravity effect. Scotland trades more with rUK than the rest of the world in many (though, importantly, not all) sectors but where it does send goods to England, it predominantly sends them to the North of England rather than the South.
Opportunity Out of Crisis
One of the major early tasks of an independent Scotland – as identified by customs expert Bill Austin – will be to rebuild Scotland’s shipping infrastructure not just to ensure supply lines stay open without having to transship through England (which would present a minor to moderate security issue as well as a diplomatic and political one) but also to ensure that shipping is done as quickly, as cheaply and as carbon-free as possible.
Independence presents an opportunity to re-align policies to better suit Scotland and to better suit our fellow traders in the also-neglected North as well as opening up new markets via new ports – as Ireland is now developing.
If we don’t do this then the alternative vision is the one presented above. Denied just now, but obviously having been discussed and not for the first time.
I know that this isn’t the future voted for even by many who voted for the Conservatives and/or for Brexit. I also know that while many rural Tories in my area have little to no faith in the Scottish Government, they would certainly be unhappy with a zero-farming future too. They’re already facing betrayals in terms of funding so to see their entire way of life possibly being written off must be devastating.
It’s no wonder that more are quietly discussing the advantages of independence compared to Boris Johnson and his cronies. I’ve heard those whispers first-hand myself and we now know from recently polling data that there are probably more pro-independence Tories in Scotland than there are Tories party members.
My advice to campaigners in rural areas is to talk to your neighbours about this. Find out how they feel about these proposals. Show how things can be different and how they can help you make them different. Even if they remain on the other side of the aisle from you in terms of party politics, we all must agree that simply being erased at the stroke of a civil servant’s pen (an “unelected bureaucrat” if you will) is unacceptable. There will and must be a place in an independent Scotland to hear voices from all sides of the political spectrum. My worry is that this place is rapidly shrinking in the UK and may soon vanish just as some in that government may wish our farms would.