Islander Nigel Hall says the government must prepare for possible disruptions to the food supply chain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – and that means making agriculture and fishing priorities as essential sectors of the economy.
He said: ‘Shocks and setbacks are staples of war and severe emergency. At every stage it is necessary to ask what else could go wrong and prepare to counter and mitigate the risk.
‘The risk of disruption to our food supplies may be small, but it cannot be discounted. Even a five to ten per cent risk justifies strategic action in time.’
And he added that government should act now by offering subsidies to farmers who want to increase production of winter crops. Mr Hall said: ‘Time is short given the planting season window and, in particular, the imminent deadline for ordering of seeds for this winter’s crops. The good news is that our farmers and growers are right on the case and are engaging with ministers and officials.
‘Apparently, we can easily upscale Island production to cover our essential food needs and at relatively little cost, possibly even at zero cost, if we all do our bit to buy local produce.’
Since leaving the Army in 2007, he has provided strategic advice to international bodies, UK government departments and non-government organisations.
However, his ideas would come at a cost as Jersey can only grow crops suited to its climate. That could mean limiting local production of non-seasonal and exotic produce. Consumers, he said, might also have to pay more.
The Island imports more than 80% of its food needs with the exception of fresh milk, potatoes and shellfish.
Local producers meet 26% of vegetable needs, 4% of the beef, lamb and pork consumption and 14% of the demand for fresh fish. Unlike UK and European producers, Jersey’s farmers and fishermen operate largely without state aid.
In response, Economic Development Minister Lyndon Farnham told the JEP that discussions regarding food security had been taking place for some time due to Brexit.
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, he added, a working group of farmers and food processors, wholesalers and retailers and exporters had been formed to consider how to increase local food supplies.
He said: ‘It is a complex position [as] the Island’s food system is fully integrated with the UK and, to a lesser extent, the EU and further afield. Food imports are essential for our population, and exports enable us to maintain commercial agriculture and marine industries.
‘However, recent events and the demands placed on our food supply system have led to increased scrutiny on the Island’s ability to provide food for the population.’
Mr Hall’s suggestions have been welcomed by Jersey Farmers Union president Peter Le Maistre.
He said: ‘The proposal to increase local food production is perfectly feasible and production can and probably will be stepped up for this autumn and winter.
‘It will be important to identify what crops are essential and produce those, which may mean you can’t have strawberries 12 months of the year!’
Jersey’s biggest mixed crop grower, Charlie Gallichan of Woodside Farms, agreed but said Islanders’s shopping habits would have to change.
He said: ‘It is all doable but basically we are having to reduce the range of crops we grow for the Island year-on-year because there’s no local demand as imported produce is cheaper because our production costs are higher – and we don’t enjoy the benefits of EU subsidies.’