2020 has turned a lot of conventional wisdom on its head, but perhaps the most eye-popping assertion is that no, actually border closures and food shortages are actually great.
The shuttering of the UK’s border with France – a response to the rapid spread of the new strain of Covid-19 currently battering Britain – might soon mean shortages on supermarket shelves, with fresh produce that’s usually shipped over from the continent unable to reach its destination.
Some have suggested that this represents a marvellous opportunity for Britain to rediscover the spirit of Dunkirk and start smuggling illicit cheeses and cold cuts across the Channel.
Others think it’s the ideal time for the English to simply start growing their own vegetables – apparently encouraging a wholesale rejigging of the British economy in time for Christmas.
What do we actually grow?
The current impasse at Dover and the Channel Tunnel could soon be over – perhaps as soon as this afternoon. But, given everything else that’s happened this year, it feels rash to rule out any further disruption – especially with the very real possibility of a no-deal Brexit looming large.
So in this increasingly globalised world – where we’re able to eat gorge ourselves on lamb from New Zealand, cheese from France and ham from Italy on a whim – what food does Britain actually grow itself?
Well, according to the government’s own stats, 55 per cent of the food consumed in the UK in 2019 came from domestic producers. A further 26 per cent came from the European Union – with four per cent coming from each of Africa, Asia, North America and South America.
The value of what Britain imports was greater than the value of its exports in pretty much every category of food and drink – from dairy through to fish – with the exception of beverages, where huge exports of Scottish whisky helps us run up a trade surplus.
But in other areas the gap is stark. Whereas the UK’s fruit and vegetable exports are worth around £1.3bn, we import £11.5bn of the stuff. We imported £6.6bn of meat last year – and exported less than a third of that. We even import more fish than we export – which is quite an achievement for an island nation.
Goodbye, Spanish salad leaves
Let’s get a bit more specific – what could we be going without if this border chaos continues?
Around 90 per cent of the UK’s salad leaves through the winter are produced in south-east Spain. Other salad staples, like peppers and cucumbers, also wind their way up through continental Europe.
We produce just 45 per cent of the tomatoes and broccoli we eat, too, receiving the rest of it from the EU. Britain ships in more than £400m of fresh tomatoes each year – mostly from the Netherlands. We even import frozen potatoes – like chips – 99 per cent of which comes from EU countries like Belgium.
You’ll also not be surprised to hear that we ship in the majority of our citrus fruits, like lemons. Although some – like the humble kumquat – apparently grows well in colder climate, so that’s a positive.
What about dairy? The UK prides itself on its cheeses – strong Cornish cheddars and its veiny intriguing Stilton.
But, in 2015, Britain imported 101,634 tonnes of cheddar, 98 per cent of which came from the EU. Nonetheless we still produce about 80 per cent of the cheese we eat. Similarly, since 2015, close to 98 per cent of our annual butter imports come from the EU.
Overall, we import about 80 per cent of our food – and that’s not even getting started on tea, coffee and wine. From Irish beef to Dutch tomatoes, the UK is acutely reliant on its neighbours. That realisation might become especially stark in the coming days and weeks.