Food

'Out of touch': Rishi Sunak urged everyone to 'buy British' food – but there are several big problems

Rishi Sunak's government have made it harder to do buy British, farmers and campaigners have warned

British farmers are in crisis. Image: Pixabay

“We shouldn’t be reliant on foreign food,” prime minister Rishi Sunak posted on social media this week. “Buy British.”

But his own government have made it harder to do so, farmers and campaigners have warned.

Climate change, soaring energy and production costs, and dodgy trade deals with overseas producers are pushing British agriculture to the brink – while the ongoing cost of living crisis means people are struggling to afford even the cheapest food.

“The government can say ‘buy British’ all they want. But if they want that to be a reality, they need to support farmers,” said Suzy Russell, from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network.

“Trade deals push down UK prices. Supermarkets have a stronghold grip on the market. Even large growers quake at the thought of losing their supermarket contracts. And until very recently the vast majority of our CSA farms were too small to receive government support of any kind.”

In 2022, nearly a third (29%) of British farms failed to make any money at all. Small farmers are particularly hard hit. In 1950 there were 160,000 small holding farms. In 2023, there were 30,000 – an 80% decline in less than 75 years.

Cash-strapped farms have been kept afloat by EU grants – but postponements to post-Brexit replacement subsidies have left many on the brink.

In 2019, the UK received approximately £4.7bn in funding from the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy. Without those subsidies, between 19% and 42% of farms wouldn’t have been able to break even. EU subsidies are slowly being replaced by UK government schemes – but there are funding gaps.

Supermarkets have a huge market share, meaning growers are forced to sell through them. In a bid to attract consumers, these huge corporations push prices down, often below the cost of production.

Meanwhile, trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand meant that cheap Antipodean beef has flooded the UK market.

“With cheap, imported food readily available, housing prices soaring and the inequality crisis growing, living on a CSA farmer’s wage is really hard work. When these are the farmers who are safeguarding the environment, building community and providing local sustainable British food this just isn’t fair or sustainable. ” Russell added.

Consumers want to ‘buy British’: survey of 2,000 adults by the NFU last summer revealed 87% supported increasing self-sufficiency in UK food production, up from 80% in 2022.

But with the cost of living crisis ongoing, many shoppers can only afford the cheapest food, said Charlotte White, a former food bank manager.

“Rishi Sunak’s post [about buying British] is galling and demonstrates how out of touch he is,” she said.

“When it comes to food, so many in this country are facing much starker choices than whether to buy British or not. Can we afford to eat tonight? Is there enough electric on the meter to put the oven? Can I make this tin of beans last three days? These are all questions heard at the food bank. Once, a mother told me that things were so tight, she couldn’t feed each of her children every night – they would take it in turns to have dinner.”

Food bank use has never been higher – there are a minimum of 3,000 food banks operating across the country. Many people facing food insecurity do not even have access food banks; the latest Department for Work and Pensions Family Resources Survey data shows that 86% of households on universal credit reporting severe food insecurity did not access a food bank.

“Focus on making sure people have money in their pockets and can afford to eat,” White urged politicians.

British agriculture can be competitive – not to mention the environmental benefits of buying locally. But it requires policy initiative, the CSA network urged.

“If they really want people to buy British, the government need to safeguard farmland, and support the policy asks in the Get Fair About Farming Campaign. They also need to reduce the power of supermarkets, and support small-scale agroecological farming,” Russell said. 

“We have the solutions, but it’s a lack of political will. A policy change could make a fundamental difference to the food system. But their interests are with multinationals, shareholders and the rich, not with the farmers and growers who feed us.”

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