This issue seems to have been presented on Twitter as a “free-trade versus protectionism” issue. I don’t think it’s anything of the sort.
My old mate Dan Hannan was first up, with “We haven’t been self-sufficient in food since the 19th Century. Why does it matter now?”. I responded “True, Dan. But we also have a balance of payments problem. And maybe a food security vulnerability”. A certain Tony C. Patrick chipped in with “We don’t make mobile phones, but we CAN & need to be self-sufficient in basic food production. Why import milk from France? Mad!”. Then Rory Meakin: “My borough isn’t self sufficient in food. Should I worry? Not self sufficient in cars, either.”
Dan again: “My village probably IS self-sufficient in food, if you like mutton all year round. We import food because we can”. Dan also took the view that countries which specialise tend to be more successful than those that don’t. I replied “It was Blair’s idea that we could forget farmers and rely on financial services. Not ideal”.
But then we get to the nub of the debate. An R.G. Tyler Tweeted: “Hmm… Roger Helmer MEP‘s recent twitter conversation with Dan Hannan MEP make (sic) me fear that UKIP are more protectionist than pro-free trade”. I replied: “Worry not Robert. You can be pro-free-trade but still want to support British industry. Think balance of payments”.
Of course Dan Hannan is a free trader in the Ricardian mode, and I have no problem with that. But why on earth should promoting a British industry be in some way anti-free-trade? If we don’t have industry (and exports) of our own, how will we pay for imports? I have constantly argued in favour of free trade (and against EU protectionism). But I don’t see that that precludes us from supporting our farmers, both in terms of clearing away regulatory obstacles, and also (if individual consumers choose to do so) buying and eating local produce.
So let’s consider why we need to support our farmers (and no, you’ll hear nothing from me about green imperatives and food miles).
First, because farmers do a great job of maintaining the countryside. Without them, it would return to scrub and wilderness. Second, because more food production contributes to UK GDP, and means more jobs and more tax revenues, and so indirectly benefits us all. Third, because domestic food production directly helps our rather dire balance of payments problem.
And fourthly (if you have any pretensions to a social conscience), we face a growing world population, likely to increase from seven billion today to ten billion by 2050, and much of it is hungry. I wouldn’t say we had a moral responsibility to maximise food production, but I would say that failing to use the resources we have for food production is downright irresponsible. In this context I would criticise both the EU’s “set-aside” (or whatever jargon term they are using these days), and of course the outrageous waste of good agricultural land on very dubious “green energy” and biomass projects. We don’t have food to burn.
I am (of course) not calling for import controls or any measure that would obstruct free trade. I take it as given that our farmers have to compete, and can compete. But I would call on the government to start cutting the red tape that binds our farmers’ hands, and leave them free to get on with doing what they do best.
There is a direct read-across here to the debate on shale gas. It is repeatedly presented as a debate about whether shale gas will mean lower prices. The answer is that we don’t know yet, although it certainly has had that effect in the USA. We can at least be very sure that significant indigenous gas production will mean prices lower than they would otherwise be. But price is not the only issue. Even if it made no difference at all to prices, it would mean more energy security, better balance of payments, more GDP, more Treasury revenues, more jobs, more growth, more prosperity. Of course price is important, but these other factors are arguably more important still.