Should we cover Britain with greenhouses so that we can be self-sufficient in tomatoes? That seems to be the latest thrust of the government’s see-sawing farming, environment and food policy. Government advisers appear to have been looking longingly across the North Sea to the Netherlands, which has become one of Europe’s leading salad producers thanks to vast heated glasshouses. In Britain, by contrast, a lot of market gardening has gone to the wall, to the point where we grow only 23 per cent of our cucumbers and 15 per cent of our tomatoes.
It might be appealing to think that we could protect consumers from rising food prices by bringing much more food production onshore. But if we want to be a wealthy country we would be better off with a government which didn’t try to determine from Whitehall what our agriculturalists and industrialists should be doing with their time – and left it to them and the market to determine. The alternative vision is for Britain to go the way of Guernsey, which once grew vast quantities of tomatoes but is dotted with abandoned greenhouses as it earns its way in financial services instead. True, the island might have cheaper tomatoes right now if its glasshouses had been preserved as part of some national economic strategy – but then what proportion of a household’s income goes on tomatoes? What matters from a national point of view is making the best of the opportunities you have in markets where you have a comparative advantage.
If there are entrepreneurs who think they can take on the Dutch and undercut the Spanish – Europe’s other great salad-producing nation, then fine. The government should not let anything – planning regulations, nimbys or otherwise – stand in the way of anyone who wants to build Dutch-style glasshouses. So long as it is easy to set up a business, and we have the infrastructure to support it, then the government is doing its job. But the world only needs so much salad, and if no UK entrepreneurs feel there is anything to be gained from taking on foreign competitors in a crowded market then that is fine, too. There is nothing wrong with importing our tomatoes. True, on the subject of imports we have been foolish to make ourselves so dependent on Russian gas and oil, and we are paying the price for that now. But then it should have been obvious that Putin’s military aggression was going to lead him into conflict with the West. The chances of the Netherlands invading Belgium, or of Spain trying to annex Portugal, are, I would say, pretty minimal. Our tomato supplies will be safe.