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  • Writer's pictureMeyrick Consulting

Scotch Whisky might save us from crippling asparagus imports!

In 2019 the UK imported far more than it exported across food, feed and drink. The only exception was the beverage market and that managed to rack up almost £2million in trade surplus. The star of that particular show was Scotch Whisky. In fact, UK beverages as a whole have an export value of almost £8.3 billion and it’s growing. That’s something of which we can all be proud and should support.

According to government figures cereal is also a player when it comes to exports and figures demonstrate almost £2.5 billion worth of sales were achieved in the same year. Meat, fish, dairy and egg categories follow up with £2.0 billion each.

However, fruit and vegetables exhibit the biggest trade deficit. We import a whopping £11.5 billion but only export £1.3 billion. In addition, we also import £6.6 billion worth of meat too. Surely, we can change this moving forward. Why don't we actively buy British where possible? Photo: Patrick Boucher

Yet, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that in 2021 import prices will rise

With more people losing their jobs, working fewer hours and coming off furlough into unemployment these factors will certainly focus the mind. Unfortunately, with fresh produce difficult to store most people will need to change what they buy and possibly even start to eat more seasonally to compensate.

Would that be a bad thing?

This is not a new concept, but it would, perhaps, smooth out the ‘boom and bust’ cycles and make us appreciate eating fruit and veg at their seasonal best rather than buying asparagus from Chile or mushrooms from Belarus. In 2020 many people became more aware of the importance of nutritious food for health. We know that vitamin content is lost very quickly once fruit and veg is picked so why don’t we shop little and often from more local producers? I probably don’t have enough print space to answer that question but our reliance on supermarket shopping is probably the reason we’ve fallen out of love with buying locally. However, right now we only produce 59% of the food we consume so there are some issues that still need to be resolved. Photo: Monika Grabowska

Prices will rise for sure and it will be inevitable that our shopping habits might need to be overhauled to mitigate those increases. If tariffs are imposed, and we hope continuing negotiations might prevent this, our shopping trolleys will be impacted throughout next year and beyond. Probably nothing will happen on January 1st but expect a steady rise. Photo Bruno Kelzer

Therefore, it is probably a worthwhile exercise to think about how we might change the way we shop. After all, 20% of what we eat does actually come from the EU right now. You might say this is where a 1960s style ‘We’re Backing Britain’ campaign would do us some good. Some tabloids are already promoting this perspective but it’s not as straightforward as that.

Farming has been impacted by food policy for years.

Dairy farmers have gone out of business as they haven’t been able to compete with imported cheap milk prices, so we aren’t in the same position as we were 25 years ago. Much of British manufacturing relies on imports from Morocco, Spain, Turkey and further afield. Many of our staple products rely on imports so these will rise. Something like HP Sauce, with its picture of the House of Parliament emblazoned on the bottle, is actually made in Holland. It is worth looking carefully at what you buy and where it comes from. Is there any way we can support British manufacturing and also eat food that’s grown locally and made from local ingredients? Would it be so bad to be less cosmopolitan in our tastes or is it too late, too parochial and totally unrealistic? What are you feelings about these topics? Photo: Randy Fath

British manufacturers have tried hard to be more resilient within their supply chains

However, if we all stock up ‘with a few extra bits and pieces’ here and there this all adds up and causes a crisis for food suppliers. Although the first lockdown demonstrated just how good the UK is at supplying food, it was also quite a tricky few weeks, that demonstrated just how the supply chain can buckle quickly when there is a mass change of behaviour. Back in March 2020, there were gaps but actually there wasn’t a real risk of running out of food. That’s the mindset we need to adopt in the UK, we have resilience so keep calm and carry on.

However, what has been interesting this year is how supermarkets have managed to change how shoppers behave

Supermarkets quickly got back on their feet by introducing rationing and suddenly with queues and shorter shopping hours we became more regimented in the way we bought food items. Gone were the quick, on the fly top up shops and weekly trips were back in vogue. What we have come to understand is how the scale of the UK food business is massive and that we do rely on worldwide imports 24/7. Prices can and do move very quickly and consumers are going to be watching like hawks because for many, their budgets won’t stretch to mass increases and none of us want to see shortages. The problem is, when anyone says ‘don’t stockpile’ it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to understand that our individual behaviours, when added together, do make a significant difference. Right now, the food sector is encouraging people to buy what they normally buy so we can have access to everything we need.

But this crazy year has seen another shift in behaviour.

Photo: AllGo

With so many people working from home ‘home cooking’ has become the new commute, according to some research undertaken by Waitrose. As painful as some commutes might have been, it put distance between work and home. It was the opportunity to work through the day and clear minds before walking through the front door. Cooking now occupies that slot and helps to divide the day in a similar manner. Preparing meals from scratch has been a novelty for many. Regimented shopping means that it’s worth taking time to work out just what is needed for menus during the week and also reduce waste. This means that if this trend continues through 2021 and beyond, we might well be able to substitute expensive imports with home grown food that’s locally produced. Yes, I might well be squinting through rose tinted glasses, but it does sound like a practical solution to the potential difficulties we might experience as our new status beds down. I might even have to work on appreciating Scotch Whisky.

Cheers! Let’s drink to a happier and healthier new year.

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