We’ve just had a very upbeat chancellor telling us that the UK has the fastest recovery of any G8 nation and that all the indicators are pointing in the right direction. House prices are on the march again - the feelgood factor is back. Yet excuse me for being a bit negative. Just as the country is coming out of recession, the grocery industry looks as if it’s diving into one. Growth is very hard to come by and is increasingly coming from less profitable channels - discounters, online and c-stores. What’s the answer? Is it time to retrain as property developers or software engineers?
Well, I don’t have much bandwidth to ponder such lofty matters, but I think I know the answer. For our industry to thrive in this country, we need to import less and export more.
Did you know that we import twice as much food and drink as we export? That’s a staggering £20bn gap. OK, I can understand why we import coconuts and bananas - but this weekend I went through our balance of trade figures by grocery aisle and I was quite shocked.
Last year, we imported £750m of mineral water into this country (some from Fiji, a lot of it from France). Was that really necessary? We imported £1bn of chocolate - twice what we exported, and we imported £500m of dogfood - again twice what we exported - and we invented the stuff.
Then there’s that quintessentially English product: the biscuit. No nation makes a better biscuit than we do. Think of our proud history - the Penguin, the Jammie Dodger, the Rich Tea… And yet last year we imported more biscuits then we sold abroad. Outrageous!
Seriously, why is this? I think it an indictment of our large food companies who have closed plants rather than thought about how to make them more efficient in the long term. British consumers would prefer Cadbury chocolate made in Bournville and not in Poland, or HP Sauce made in Hayes, not Holland. I’m not saying bring back import duties, but if we’re not growing in Tesco or Sainsbury’s, let’s find other ways of growing. Let’s send our best commercial brains to sell overseas and let’s use our best engineers to make British factories hum.
I don’t know the answer but I know someone who does: you. Go figure.