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Brexit Means Mass Starvation (or Something Like That)

Some arguments are so bad they should simply be reproduced, word for word, with pauses to reflect on how lousy they really are. This is about one of them.

To date, Britain has not succumbed to the mass unemployment, economic depression, plunging stock market, or benefits cuts that were promised as the inevitable consequences of a referendum decision to leave the EU. As a result, our expensively-educated masters will now teach us about other apocalyptic outcomes that must surely follow as soon as the UK-EU divorce is finalized. One of the strangest of these is that planes will stop flying. As aircraft fly perfectly well between the EU and every other country in the world, it is mystifying that their owners and operators would prefer them all to crash into the sea instead of choosing to land at a non-EU Heathrow after taking off from the still-EU Charles de Gaulle. But the delusional faction of British society who have now rebranded themselves as “the people” – despite being an actual minority of actual people – also realize that their transportation-led arguments are of less relevance to those of us who do not own a Tuscan villa. Hence they have identified another economic consequence which will surely make anybody rethink the dangers of leaving the EU: mass starvation.

Famine has always been a great source of political upheaval, as acknowledged by anybody who refused to eat Marie Antoinette’s cake and Irish terrorists who long remained upset about potatoes. Imagine how many people it will persuade to vote the right way, as part of the people’s new non-fear-oriented campaign of rational persuasion? Up steps Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, whose great skill at evaluating the efficiency of waiters and the temperature of soup naturally makes him the perfect choice to explain how the 21st century food chain works.

Brexit provides the perfect ingredients for a national food crisis

A droll punning title confirms we are dealing with a serious man who should be treated with respect.

In 1941, the refrigeration company William Douglas and Sons completed work on a brick-and-steel-frame cold store for meat and fish, on a site at Goldsborough in North Yorkshire. Although the building was demolished a couple of years ago, Theresa May and her newly appointed Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, might still like to have a look at the site, to get a sense of what the central management of a food supply chain crisis really looks like.

Probably we should all look at the site of a demolished building in order to improve our knowledge of how the European Union works, and why its food producers would prefer to stop selling food, presumably out of spite rather than any rational self-interest. Contemplating why the EU as analogous to a derelict building would surely be of greater educational benefit than reading Jay Rayner’s article.

Because right now they don’t seem to have the first clue.

Make senior politicians look at demolished buildings until they get a clue? It is a radical theory, but I suspect most voters would prefer they do political things like negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU.

It’s vast and it sits alongside what was once a railway track.

Yes, we really are four sentences in, and already sidelined by comments about railways. It is a shame the cold store was not built next to an air strip, so we could be told how pigs (in the form of Danish bacon) will not be able to fly after Brexit (because of the principles of aviation cannot be relied upon without the approval of EU bureaucrats).

What’s more, it’s only one of 43 built that year around the country, alongside 40 grain stores. And all for a population only a little more than half that of today’s.

And no longer needed today, for a population a little less than double that of 1941.

Last week, in evidence to the Brexit select committee, Raab announced that the government would be working to secure “adequate food supplies” in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which could impede the free flow across our borders of the 30% of our food currently imported from the EU.

Raab is guilty of a classic political mistake. It is only when a government says they are trying to do something that a restaurant critic can be relied upon to show us why they are failing.

No, the government itself would not be stockpiling food. Quite right. It doesn’t have a way of doing so. Instead, it would be up to the food industry to deal with it. They are comments that have left the entire British food supply chain – farmers, producers and retailers – utterly baffled.

Yes, the principles of capitalism are baffling, are they not? People who sell food might be interested in an opportunity to sell more food if there was a need for food. Or else they can run their businesses as if the only thing that matters is the subsidy they receive from the EU.

“There isn’t warehousing space in this country,” Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents the interests of UK manufacturers, told me. “There doesn’t need to be, because companies do not hold huge inventories. It’s massively financially inefficient to do so.”

Ian Wright makes perfect sense. Businesses do not invest in infrastructure they do not need. But this focus on the middlemen – the warehousers – misses the point of how the supply chain works. It is financially ‘efficient’ to wring the necks of the actual food producers, screwing them for every penny whilst expecting them to deliver exactly what is needed, when needed. The issue is not storage, but whether the supply can be ramped up or down at short notice, in just the way the retailers already expect.

Only 49% of the food we consume is produced in Britain, he said. The rest comes from abroad, and most of that is in the form of ingredients to be turned into the foods we eventually eat. It arrives just in time to be used…

“Just in time”? Like a car manufacturing plant. That sounds like a good way to boost profits, unless it costs your business the opportunity to make more sales. That is why car manufacturers do their utmost to make production scalable to match demand. This is also the issue when supplying food. That is why we have a supply chain that can sell people bananas even though none grow in this country, and people eat strawberries even in the middle of our Winter.

But what I really want to know is whether the 49 percent of food we produce includes the 20 percent of food we waste each year? It would be more convenient if we only wasted foreign-produced food, so we could simultaneously address many problems by not burning fossil fuels to transport food from faraway countries so it can end up in a British rubbish bin.

…after which the finished goods are immediately dispatched. “I don’t think the government understands that,” he said.

Perhaps not. But did he ask them if they understood? Anybody who speaks the English language can understand what has just been articulated, begging the question of whether it is the politicians or the businessman who does not understand how the world works, or if they are both being as cynical and duplicitous as each other.

Or, as the head of one of Britain’s biggest food manufacturers put it to me, “That lot couldn’t run a fish and chip shop.”

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but if this is the quality of the analysis then I prefer to see some evidence of the coming armageddon before entering into a panic about leaving the EU.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, which represents all the major food retailers, agrees. “It’s just not a practical notion,” she said. “There’s no space to store food. Supply chains are extremely fragile.”

So, a top businesswoman has just said that top businesspeople are crap at running their businesses. Did she get her PR training from Gerald Ratner? Helen Dickinson should ask the proprietor of the local chippy for some basic advice about business, such as: “is having an extremely fragile supply chain a good thing, yes or no?”

Dickinson’s words tell us the problem is with the businesses who choose to rely on an unreliable supply chain, not the politicians seemingly being asked to coddle those businesses.

Perhaps the food industry would have a better grasp of the government’s thinking, or be able to explain its failings, if there had been any contact with ministers or civil servants, but so far there has been none.

Maybe so, but does the food industry need to speak to grown-ups to learn that an extremely fragile supply chain is a bad idea? Seemingly so. Unfortunately, Jay Rayner does not possess the intellect to provide that feedback either.

“We suggested to government months ago that we should talk about contingency planning,” says Wright, “but we haven’t yet had the conversation.”

The idea of a businessman needing to speak to a politician before they can plan for contingencies that will affect their business is as ridiculous as a homeowner refusing to buy insurance until the local fire brigade has come over to explain the risk of their house burning down.

The same applies to the big supermarkets. “As far as I know, none of the supermarkets have been approached,” says Dickinson. Ditto the farmers. “None of the elected officials or officials at the NFU has had any of those conversations,” a senior figure at the National Farmers’ Union told me.

Literally nobody can do anything until the government has told them to do it? I am pretty sure the shareholders in Tesco – already battered by management incompetence and swindling – will be glad to hear that their well remunerated executives are paralysed by the need to be told by government how to keep their shelves filled.

Should we be concerned? According to Wright, absolutely. “You need only one unexpected shock in the supply chain and you’ve got no product very quickly.”

It is obvious that Ian Wright does not considerable himself answerable to ordinary people, or else he would be concerned by the admission that the entire food industry is one surprise away from utter failure. What is surprising is that he used to work in corporate relations for major businesses like Diageo. Let us imagine what would happen to the share price of a business like Diageo if he diligently informed shareholders that the business was ‘one unexpected shock’ away from losing a ton of money.

He points to the recent acute shortage of CO2, a by-product of the fertiliser business. It led to supply problems with everything from beer to crumpets. A no-deal Brexit would make that one episode look like child’s play. “It would be disruption on a pretty epic scale, at least for a number of weeks,” he says. “If this does go wrong, we would see a very speedy erosion of choice.”

It is a struggle to see how a lack of choice for a few weeks is synonymous with an existential threat to the country, but perhaps I am not as needy as the writer of this article. The average supermarket shopper already knows about diminishing choice, without having to wait for Brexit, because anyone paying attention to the shelves (or profits) of Tesco would know they offer significantly less choice than they did before. This change was not motivated by an ‘unexpected shock’ but by the realization that Tesco could generate bigger profits by buying a smaller selection of products in larger quantities. So Ian Wright’s argument is rapidly devolving into saying Brexit could have the same impact on shoppers as decisions which executives make to increase corporate profits. Which is exactly how problematic Brexit really is.

That would be the case in any year, but over the next 12 months supply problems are going to be exacerbated by other challenges facing British agriculture. As we report today, the NFU is calling a drought summit to discuss the critical weather-related issues facing farmers across the UK. Many cattle are already being given winter feeds because grassland has been scorched. Some are being sent to slaughter early to cut losses. Milk yields are heading downwards and potato crops have been badly hit.

And 20 percent of food is wasted. Anything can sound bad if you use emotive words like “badly hit” instead of telling us how much supply will be constrained. Even the owners of a chippy know how many potatoes they need.

Raab’s solution is just to find other countries to make up the shortfall.

No, that is everyone’s solution. We know this because the food industry has just said they do not believe in stock management, which means the only way they could increase supply to cater for demand is to seek additional suppliers.

“The idea that we only get food imports into this country from one continent is not appropriate,” he said. But if that means, looking towards the United States, he is deluding himself.

So why not just ask Raab if he was expecting the USA to supply all the extra food needed? Because the writer is a restaurant critic, that is why.

Last week the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London released a briefing paper written by, among others, Professor Tim Lang, looking at British food security post-Brexit. It pointed out that the US is currently only the tenth largest exporter of food to Britain.

That must be a strange paper, pointing out which country comes tenth in a list instead of pointing out the nine countries ahead of it.

“For the US to replace the combined food imports from the other nine of the top 10,” the report said, “would require a vast food flotilla and logistics operation exceeding that of the 1940-45 Atlantic convoys.”

So what these brilliant people are saying is that it would be a bad idea to stop all imports from the top nine sources of food, and to replace them all by solely relying on imports from one other country? Wow. My mind has been blown by the genius of this insight. Next they will be telling us it is a bad idea to try to eat your own head, because probably you cannot, but it would be bad for you if you tried.

The reference to the second world war is apposite.

No, it is not. It is hackneyed. The-people-who-are-actually-a-minority-whilst-fantasizing-about-being-a-majority think that everybody who voted to leave the EU has a morbid fascination with WW2. The truth is that only EUphiles keep comparing Brexit to a world-ending calamity.

The Atlantic convoys, like those cold stores, were created to counter an external, existential threat to national survival.

Here it comes… previously we had extremely fragile supply chains that might lead to a lack of choice. But now, without a single useful number being presented, we will make the leap to…

This peacetime threat has been created entirely by the ludicrous ideology of Brexit, its mismanagement by Theresa May’s government and infighting within the Tory party.

Hoorah! Why even pretend that this article had anything to do with contingency planning for international food businesses when the real purpose was just to repeat the same old complaints yet again?

Our currently abundant food supply may well be downgraded to merely “adequate”.

So the author thinks it is apposite to compare a war which was an existential threat to the country and which killed between 50 and 80 million people, to a political decision which may leave us relying upon an adequate supply of food? I wonder if Marie Antoinette would have been alright if there had been an adequate supply of cake.

It is a dereliction of duty and an abnegation of the basic responsibilities of good government, on a truly staggering scale. Those involved should hang their heads in shame.

The same could be said of the editorial team at the Guardian, for publishing this fact-free piffle. But if we want advice about how to run a business, perhaps it is best not to turn to the team whose greatest achievement is reducing their chronic losses. On the other hand, if they had some money to spend on journalism and research then perhaps they would not resort to having their restaurant critic cooking up theories for why Brexit will be worse than the most tragic war the world has ever seen.

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