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Fill your boots this Xmas – and save the rural economy

Friday 19 December 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been blathering on for years about the need to support British food producers, welcomes a new buzz-word in the rural lexicon: food “security.”

IT IS, of course, bad manners to say “I told you so.” But for ten long years and more I have been telling anyone who would listen that British politicians were ignoring a somewhat important part of daily life – i.e., the ability to put food on the table.

Eat local and Enjoy!
Eat local and enjoy!

When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair was quoted as saying that he didn’t see the need the need for farm subsidies here when we could buy foreign food on the cheap. This led to him being famously hand-clapped at the annual conference of the WI and possibly caused the foot-and-mouth disaster: many believe it came to this country on infected South American beef.

But in the past few weeks, a new buzz-word (or rather phase) has entered the rural lexicon: “food security.” And this does not mean that the food is fit to eat (after so many food scandals) but the very fact that there must be food available here in Britain to put on the nation’s table.

For in the past 18 months, there has been a growing realisation that the world is very close to running short of food and that we, despite our arrogant complacency, are no longer a prime market for foreign food producers. That growing realisation has been exacerbated in the past month or so by the collapse of the pound as a major world currency: foreign farmers can get more cash feeding the growing middle classes in India and China (not to mention, this week, in Euroland).

All this makes sense – if you know what local food is. Only this month, supermarkets were clearing Irish sausages and other pork products from their shelves in panic because they may have been contaminated by dangerous dioxin poisons

Winston Churchill admitted in his autobiography that that the only time he feared we would lose the war was during the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic, which came very close to starving us into surrender. Why: because successive Governments had allowed British agriculture to go to the wall in the 1930s. And what have we been doing these past twenty or thirty years: exactly the same!

But this week, the looming danger has finally penetrated the thick bunkers of Whitehall. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn was asked what the main priority of Defra was now that it has been stripped of its role in fighting climate change. He replied:”Food security.”

On Wednesday, the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) issued an important press release which stated baldly: “Food security is the biggest challenge of our time.” And the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) issued as plea to people to buy locally produced food from locally owned food shops to ensure the survival of the rural economy (See News, Thursday).

All this makes sense – if you know what local food is. Only this month, supermarkets were clearing Irish sausages and other pork products from their shelves in panic because they may have been contaminated by dangerous dioxin poisons. Yet it emerged that any Irish pork used by an English company in making sausages and piescould legally be labelled “Made in England.”

Last year, there was a huge avian-flu scare at Bernard Matthews poultry farms in Norfolk when it was suggested that the disease may have been brought in on cheap turkeys imported from Hungary. This the company denied but for decades Bernard Matthews himself, with his “bootiful” Norfolk accent, was seem by millions as the very epitome of the English farmer.

So what to do if you want to buy English food and ensure the future food supply? Well, this year my wife and I will be having for our Christmas dinner a free range English duck from a Skipton butcher we have patronised for years. It will be farm fresh on Christmas Eve because, quite frankly, one has no idea where frozen poultry comes from.

Most of the veg will come from our allotment (grown from English seed, of course) and any non-tropical fruit will have been carefully selected and labelled English grown. I will take the odd pint of English real ale and perhaps take the odd dram of Scotch whisky (they’re still British, damn it). My one unavoidable weakness will be a glass of vintage port – but the Portuguese have been our unbroken allies for 700 years.

In other words, the Family Sheard will have a reet good do. And it we have any guilt over our excessive indulgence, it will be assuaged by the fact that we are contributing to the nation’s “food security” and helping to ensure the future of the rural economy. The things one does for England! Happy Christmas.

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