Anyone who thought they knew what the post-Brexit, post-Covid ‘new normal’ would look like clearly needs to think again in light of the events in Ukraine. And anyone simply hoping for the best is going to have to reckon with a whole new set of uncertainties, which include some very bad ‘worsts’.
For food and farming, there are obvious immediate pressure points around input costs and supply shortages for feed, fuel and fertilisers, on top of all the ‘known knowns’ we are already aware of. The questions no one can yet answer are about the scale and duration of these effects.
That should not mean carrying on regardless in the meantime. If the experiences of the last two years have taught us anything – leaving aside the longer lessons of war and peace in Europe over the last century – it is that we must not be complacent, and we need robust contingency plans.
In the EU, there are already calls for the cultivation of all available land in a modern version of ‘dig for victory’ to increase self-sufficiency and mitigate the effects of global price shocks. The calls are not entirely without self-interest on the part of an agricultural lobby keen to row back from some of the sustainability aspects of the EU’s new ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy and revert to a more production-oriented model, prioritising outputs over environmental impacts. Such reactions are at least partially understandable in the face of a sudden and brutal assault on what was previously considered a safe set of assumptions about how best to feed ourselves in future.
However, a basic tenet of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising our ability to meet the needs of generations to come. That means integrating the economic and environmental pillars of agri-food policies, as well as tackling the social and other issues responsible for unequal access to food and poor health outcomes.
If nothing else, what is happening in Ukraine should give us legitimate pause for thought about what we want our food systems to deliver and how to achieve it. That should include our post-Brexit trading relationships, especially those which risk undermining our domestic standards and competitiveness in return for increased access to new markets for other sectors.
True food security must be fully sustainable. If that means revisiting the upcoming National Food Strategy before it sees the light of day, so be it.