Pig farmers are protesting, joining the ranks of climate activists and Remainiac Steve Bray outside Conservative Party Conference. The Prime Minister’s seeming dismissal of the imminent cull of 120,000 pigs as ‘just what happens’, has riled up farmers across the country who say that the cull is a result of the same sort of labour shortages we’ve seen in petrol delivery and hospitality.
But today, the Secretary of State for Defra seemed to disagree with that analysis, blaming, instead, butchers who are importing cheaper pork from the continent. On a fringe panel on levelling up the rural economy, hosted by the think tank Onward, George Eustice suggested that processing plants were not being completely honest to blame a labour shortage:
‘Some of these processors are telling their farmers that they haven’t got the labour, but they are then importing large quantities of pork from eastern Europe, so they actually do have the labour to do the processing. They’re just choosing to buy from eastern Europe rather than from the British farmers with whom they’ve got contracts’
But for Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers’ Union who was also on the panel, merely pointing out that processors were looking for cheaper pork wasn’t enough. She saw this loss of competitiveness as an inherent part of the higher wages drive that the government is going for:
‘You bring in Danish pork cheaper than the British. So what's not to like? And that is what they are doing… So if you talk about food and wage inflation here, you have to be very careful that what you are producing here is competitive with what is going on elsewhere.’
Pointing to past price wars, Batters named Aldi and Lidl as the discount retailers putting pressure on British producers to lower prices at a time when their costs are already rising. ‘We are living with a cut rate food system in this country… When you get market failure, governments are there to intervene in the marketplace’. Eustice also admitted that higher food prices are coming down the line as a result of a pursuit of higher wages, calling it ‘a modest structural increase in food prices’ that is ‘inherent’ in the attempt to restructure labour in this country.
In Saturday’s Coffee House Shots, the team discussed the ‘EFFing crisis’ - energy, fuel and food, which may only get worse as autumn wears on. If Eustice is right, then our current crisis in food is not down to any seasonal shortage of labour, but more concerningly due to a semi-permanent increase in food prices. That’s probably not what many had in mind when they thought of ‘levelling up’.