I often see people suggesting that if we cannot import as much food, then Britain will simply have to grow more of its own and forego pineapples, often referencing WWII. This is a vicious lie, and ignores the sacrifice of the thousands in the Merchant Navy who lived and died to keep the country fed.
Those who talk in romantic terms of the war are usually those who did not live through it. The war finished 74 years ago. To have remembered the whole war as an adult, with all the first hand memories of having to struggle to feed a family on rations, you would now have to be 97 years old. My grandmother is 97. She was 18 when the war started, married at 19 and a pregnant widow at 21. She does not talk of the war – ever. It is certainly not something to be nostalgic about.
Even with every available scrap of land cultivated (Dig for Victory), rationing to reduce demand, the 80,000 strong Land Army to work the fields, we were still not self sufficient.
The Merchant Navy worked tirelessly to import food from abroad, without which the nation would have starved. 30,248 members of the Merchant Navy died while trying to keep the country fed.
Rationing was introduced, but only for those products where a modest supply could be guaranteed, and many products were simply unavailable. Onions and tomatoes were often in very short supply, despite the fact that they can be grown in this country; they were not rationed because supply could not be guaranteed.
We were reliant on international allies to feed us through the Lend-Lease programme, which contributed 10% of our food supplies alone – and we only finished repaying the loans from the USA in 2006 – over 60 years after the end of the war.
Since then, our population has risen from 47m to 66m – a rise of 40%. Britain’s landmass has got precisely 0% bigger in that time, and the amount of land that is available for cultivation has got smaller as additional housing has been built on former agricultural land.
The agricultural sector – along with slaughterhouses and logistics – have become essentially reliant on EU workers. They may not be immediately removed from the country, but some will naturally return to their home country, and no one will be able to replace them. Many are seasonal, and work in the UK for only part of the year, and will not be allowed back in in the event of No Deal. There is already a shortage; crops rotted in the fields in summer 2018 because there weren’t enough people to pick them. 69% of slaughterhouse workers are EU citizens, and there are 10,000 unfilled posts. These problems will only get worse after Brexit. Unlike in WW2, it won’t be possible to have the Land Army because far more women are in paid work now and are therefore unavailable for agricultural work.
Sometimes people suggest that unemployed people should be made to pick crops, but this ignores the record low unemployment rates, and the practicalities – for instance, if your children are at school in inner London, you cannot simply take up a job many miles away picking fruit. Many of those classed as unemployed are not fit for that sort of work; we have all heard the stories of terminal cancer patients deemed fit to work by the DWP.
Brexit is scheduled for 29th March, right at the start of the ‘Hungry Gap’. It’s the few weeks during April, May and early June when winter crops have all finished but the new crops aren’t yet ready for harvesting. Normally we don’t notice it because of food imports, but even Riverford veg boxes have to suspend their UK only veg box because there simply isn’t enough fresh British food during the Hungry Gap. The time when we are most dependent on food imports is when our government has decided to throw them into chaos.
In summary, our population is larger and we are now less able to produce our own food in WWII – not a time of great self sufficiency, but a time when much of our food still had to be imported. Suggesting that the UK can grow all its own food is a self-serving lie that completely lacks historical context.