OPINION: A pressing need to repair our broken food chain

Empty supermarket shelves at the start of the pandemic

Empty supermarket shelves at the start of the pandemic - there are worries there could be more shortages after a shutdown of two fertiliser factories - Credit: Archant

The sight of acres of empty supermarket shelves stemming from a shutdown of just two fertiliser factories (where carbon dioxide is a vital by-product) shows just how little we really understand about the complex supply chain which ensures we always have not just enough to eat, but the variety and quality of produce which we have come to expect.

Everyone knows that CO2 is a core ingredient in fizzy drinks, but how many of us realised that it is widely used in meat processing, promoting the growth of produce such as cucumbers and tomatoes in greenhouses, and in the packaging (to extend shelf life) of a whole range of items from baby food to baked products?

The reliance on carbon dioxide is just one of an endless number of similar links in the food chain, and the fact that chain is currently starting to unravel teaches us that ignorant tinkering with it for political gain could have very serious consequences indeed.

The Covid pandemic has to a certain extent exposed some of the weaknesses in the chain, but it has to be said that despite the draconian restrictions of lockdown, producers, logistics organisations and supermarkets kept us fed throughout. So it’s disappointing to see that just as we emerge from the worst of those restrictions, the situation is simply getting worse.

The argument about the cause of that is well rehearsed, but one thing is clear: the government’s first responsibility is to ensure the security of the nation, and that includes its food security. And currently, it is failing.

Whatever your opinion on Brexit, there can be little doubt that untethering ourselves from our biggest market, and the reliable source of labour for our food producers which went with it, has been an awful mistake – for no discernible benefit.

The much-vaunted free trade deals with the rest of the world which we were told would neatly replace this have simply not materialised. Joe Biden is the latest world leader to slap down that ambition, just this week.

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Of course we are not going to starve. But stories of crops rotting in the field unpicked, and of farmers unable to send their animals to market, are not made-up. If something isn’t done, not only will there be empty shelves, but prices will rise exponentially, hitting hardest those who already struggle to put food on the table.

It’s time for politicians of all colours to stop playing politics and start working together to solve this problem. Because in the end, as ever, it will be the most vulnerable in our society who bear the brunt of it.

What a load of…
A small Norfolk drinks maker with a historic brand has been in the news this week, after it emerged that giant Austrian corporation Red Bull (established 1987) is trying to force Bullards (a brand which dates from 1837) to stop using its own name on all but a tiny, limited number of products.

Ridiculously, Red Bull claims that consumers will be confused between the two brands. Really? Does Red Bull really think its customers are that stupid?

Russell Evans, left, founder of Bullards Spirits, and family shareholder John Bullard, crush Red Bul

Russell Evans, left, founder of Bullards Spirits, and family shareholder John Bullard, crush Red Bull cans as Red Bull are accusing Bullards of a conflict of interest with the brand names - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

In what many have decried as the worst type of corporate bullying (the Twitter hashtag #redbully is one I have seen repeatedly), no doubt Red Bull hope that the Norwich-based distiller will run scared from the prospect of a company with expensive lawyers and deep pockets, and cave in.

So three cheers for Bullards for standing their ground. As its managing director said in an interview last week, “my father always told me I had to stand up to bullies”.

From what I gather, Bullards has no intention of ever making energy drinks, which Red Bull’s core business. But that hasn’t stopped the Austrian giant trying to stop the historic Bullards name being applied to all sorts of other products, including – laughably – tonic water, which surely has much more to do with artisan gin than it does with their own sugar-laden, caffeinated ‘energy drink’.

Red Bull has form here: in 2013 they tried the same trick with city brewer Redwell, which also dug its heels in and refused to be bullied. Redwell won that particular spat, which should give Bullards the courage to keep fighting.

On a positive note, the affair has attracted considerable national media attention, with the result that the Norwich brand is now much better known right around the country – perhaps not what the Red Bull lawyers had in mind

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