Old picture from Oxford's Covered Market. Old picture from Oxford's Covered Market. Source: allpossible.org.uk - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

The supermarkets and agribusiness have established food production subject to the whims of the market, not human need, argues Kevin Ovenden

Depleted fruit and vegetable supermarket aisles are to last for weeks in Britain. The government cannot say it was not warned. 

There were specific warnings by the farming industry body the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) last year. This week Tory environment secretary Therese Coffey was booed and heckled at the NFU conference. 

The NFU is in no way a union akin to a trade union. It is dominated by large farmers and agribusiness. That makes it all the more striking that there was such deep anger at Coffey for claiming that the crises facing food production and supply do not indicate a failure of the market mechanism that she worships like an idol. She is, for example, relaxed about agribusiness poisoning Britain’s rivers. 

The big supermarkets are rationing sales of various vegetables. Egg production has fallen by nearly one billion, reversing a situation in which Britain was self-sufficient in that area. Small farms are closing while giant retail and agribusiness continue to rake in profits as prices rise though still there are shortages. Horticultural production – greenhouses and similar – is back to the level of 1985. 

What’s happening?

The two immediate issues around tomatoes, cucumbers, and similar veg are firstly that an ‘extreme weather event’ hit Spain and North Africa in recent weeks. For three weeks night time temperatures fell below zero, hitting the production of those fruits and vegetables which are a key source of imports at this time of year to Britain. At the same time, the rise in energy prices has led farmers in Britain and the Netherlands to limit hothouse horticulture on account of the exorbitant costs of heating the greenhouses. 

Not vegetables, but an earlier and ongoing crisis from last year is egg production. A virulent strain of avian flu hit Britain and parts of Europe very hard. That meant the mass slaughter of poultry to stop the spread and bringing the remaining flocks indoors. The result is a sudden drop in production, increased costs, and rising prices. Not one poultry worker was paid more as the price of eggs soared. Many were sacked, in fact. It was not rising wages by others that meant you had to cut back on giving your child a boiled egg. 

There is some background noise in the public discussion about Brexit having something to do with what feels like a 1970s-style crisis of food availability – then it was famously sugar, bread, and potatoes at various points. That’s not what experts on food production say – nor the farmers, nor the union organising farm workers and truckers. And it is not that this is happening only in ‘Brexit Britain’. It is happening in Ireland. In a different way – marked by ludicrous prices and poor quality – it is happening in Greece. As for North Africa… we are not encouraged to think that circumstances there are connected to conditions here. 

Nor is this a particular and unusual event. It is part of what we must now realise is the state of affairs and will be a regular occurrence in our lives. We have had copious reports for decades about the impact of climate change on agricultural production and food security. The World Bank produced yet another last October. The COP27 climate conference in Egypt published more. Egypt, incidentally, is experiencing an enormous crisis right now of food supply and of inflation – just as it did in the years running up to the 2011 revolution, and back in the late 1970s.  

Climate breakdown 

Underlying the immediate food shock in Britain are: 

  1. the impact of climate breakdown leading to sudden extreme weather events that can devastate production. In 2021 unusual winter frosts in Brazil wiped out a third of coffee production. The murderous heatwave in Pakistan and India a year ago destroyed much production of cereals, grains, and other staples. These are not localised events. They are a global morphing phenomenon. Not tomorrow. Today. 
  2. the consequence of the surge in energy prices triggered by the war in Ukraine. That war may be a particular event, but there is a general and increasing pressure to war. One look at the rising tensions in the Middle East today shows that. 
  3. further spread of pathogens like avian flu that, even without crossing over to human beings, can shatter supply from factory-concentrated agriculture. 
  4. an unsustainable reliance on extended supply chains that are geared to a retail and food industry that condition us to what was never a good idea and is now impossible: providing out-of-season food from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away whatever the environmental impact or stability of supply. 

This is way beyond the argument about the terms of trade between Britain and the EU. It is about 350 million people globally thrown into food insecurity – that is a step away from starvation – in the last year. It demands a revolutionary transformation in agriculture and in the social organisation of food. 

What does that start to look like in Britain? The NFU is right against the Tory government’s free-market extremism. But the solution is not subsidies to what are in the main giant businesses. It is to encroach upon those in order to rationalise production and subsidise it for ordinary people. That would mean socialising the big supermarket chains which simultaneously squeeze the small farmer and the customer while ratcheting up profits despite covid and flattening economic activity elsewhere. 

The British state could do this kind of thing with the Defence of the Realm Act 1939 which directed agricultural production during the Second World War right down to each acre of land and the rationing of key foodstuffs. It also altered the diet of the nation – for the better, nutritionally. That was because it felt its interests were at stake. It will not do that now. 

We have to develop a counter power that can press such actions, in the context of the revolutionary transformation of affairs that is needed to deal with climate breakdown, war, and economic crises. For those are with us now

Did we foolishly think that the scientists’ warnings of climate breakdown devastating agriculture and of the unsustainability of our industrial and social organisation of food supply and consumption referred only to people in the developing world? No. It is happening now, in the core of the system. It happened when drought more than decimated Italian olive oil production and now means the canals of Venice are parched. 

Transforming this is a huge task. One thing that can be done now is to lift this issue that is hitting working-class people everywhere from silly politicking to the level of radical and militant change. 

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.