Roast autarky and British sprouts

As Covid choked the passageways between the UK and France at the end of December, there were increasing calls from farmers and politicians to “Buy British.” This is irritating because many of us do just that already; filling our fridges and store cupboards has for many years not been an either/or choice. But is this plea pragmatic, patriotic or nationalistic?

There is no doubt that our farmers need our support and loyalty. They face currently unclear future export conditions, they cannot be sure that standards won’t be lowered to achieve a deal with the USA, and they face a drastic and destabilising change in the system of subsidies. I know I am guilty of buying far less in the farmshop than I do in the supermarket, but the financial reality is that price forms part of our food buying decisions alongside availability, taste and quality. Availability, however, seems to be disintegrating from that matrix as the shutting of the border into France offered us a taste of the barriers we can expect now we have such a wafer thin Brexit deal.    

On the political front, the architects of Brexit told us that the ability to make our own trade deals would bring cheaper food into the UK, so they clearly weren’t too concerned about a patriotic kitchen cupboard until the ‘fear mongering’ of shortages became reality. The problem of a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables is currently batted away by these fans of British victuals, who declare that in the good old days we never used to get strawberries outside the month of June and that eating seasonal produce is the proper thing to do.

However, many of these are also the same folks who constantly preach that the market should decide. For the last couple of decades, the market is the very thing that has required that we can eat salad and soft fruits all year round, and international trade via a fast, efficient, barrier-free system of imports has enabled the market to make that demand. They are therefore surely suggesting we revert to the tail wagging the dog, retrofitting what we want to eat to suit the new limitations we’re imposing on ourselves. Few of us would sit down to a plate of spam and turnips and genuinely claim it was what we really fancied for dinner anyway. I’m pretty sure even the dog would turn his nose up at spam.     

There is this insane notion that “buying British” can immediately plug the gap and replace the Spanish tomatoes currently rotting in a truck outside Calais. Even our world-beating British ingenuity can’t magic alternative goods out of nowhere at a few days’ notice. For one thing, who’s going to pick them? Plants take time to grow. It’s worth noting too that while sugar is grown in the UK in the form of beet, it is Brexit-backing Tate & Lyle’s imported sugar cane that receives support in the form of a promised sweetheart deal.

So far, so obviously political. Let’s a look a little more closely at some of the British food options we’re being offered in the shops:

Exhibit A – Tesco British Carrots. Look closely at the pack and you’ll see these were in fact grown in Spain. Perhaps this is some sort of surrogate agriculture and they are a British seed implanted into Spanish soil. Or maybe we are staking a claim to national ownership of the carrots because of some sort of world beating special relationship with root vegetables.

Exhibit B – Somerset Brie. The name may evoke a pleasant soft cheese in the French style but improved by its production in the bucolic farms of the Somerset Levels. Of course the reality of the 21st century dairy industry is a far cry from such idealised scenes of rural life. An interesting thread on Twitter recently demonstrated that once you dig into the detail of ownership and sourcing, things are not always as they seem.

(Editor’s note: We have edited the thread to highlight information on ownership and tax strategy. You can click on the first quote to access the original thread.)

A recent Brexiteer theme is how the UK can manage just fine without food products from the EU. Just search for mentions of “Somerset Brie” and you’ll find dozens of pompous claims from true patriots who eat no other cheese. But what do we know about Somerset Brie?

A thread.

A quick Google reveals that Somerset Brie is made by a company called Lubborn Cheese Limited. Their address is 1 Manor Farm Cottages, Cricket St Thomas, Chard. Could they be more English? Let’s check their web site, shall we?

This doesn’t look like much like sunlit sovereign uplands full of yeoman farmers. It looks like a French-based multinational with 80,000 employees, production capacity in 51 countries, worldwide and nearly €20 billion in revenue. In other words… GLOBALISTS.

Kid Scream GIF

Lactalis has an English-language Wikipedia page, but the French version is much more complete.
It has sections on the company’s past refusals to publish its accounts and accusations of tax evasion

There is also a 2,400-word section on all of the court cases where Lactalis has been found guilty of fraud, illegal strike-breaking, price fixing, pollution of rivers, and selling baby formula contaminated with salmonella, resulting in its CEO being arrested in 2019.

Lubborn Cheese’s site contains a link to the Lactalis Group’s UK tax strategy, which isn’t something one would normally associate with a small family-owned creamery.

And here is the heart of that strategy. If you don’t speak this language, let me translate for you: It says “We are not going to pay a penny in UK tax if we can help it”.

Oh. Well, apparently they don’t like telling people how much tax they pay.

So, Somerset Brie comes from a French-based globalized company that pollutes the environment and refuses to say how much tax it pays anywhere. Yet Brexiteers think it’s just great.

Baffling Nigel Farage GIF

Originally tweeted by Nick Brown (@sTeamTraen) on 18/12/2020.

British does not necessarily mean British.

This is certainly not to denigrate all British farming and food production, but we should not be fooled into thinking that buying British is a one-shot solution to keeping our food plentiful, nutritious and interesting. We currently import around 45 per cent of our food. British taste has diversified. 30 years ago a chicken chow mein was pretty exotic. Now we consume vast quantities of cookbooks, and food-based TV shows are packed with chefs showing us exciting new ingredients and different ways of using them. It is widely accepted that food security depends on using a variety of sources to protect supply against bad harvests, conflict or simply changing demand. 

For Christmas dinner in my house this year, we chose to tuck into roasted gurnard – a fish caught in UK waters but not much favoured at the UK’s dinner table. If this is something a lack of export market makes more readily available here, so much the better for my palate. While others may have fancied a ‘patriotic’ diet of roast autarky and British (not Brussels!) sprouts, I say enjoy those green veg while you can. There may be less choice this January.