The Covid-19 pandemic has been disastrous at a political as well as a personal level. Economies the world over have tanked badly thanks to the impact the virus has had.
But here in the UK, in one respect at least, it has provided a fig leaf for the UK government, which was elected on a promise to “get Brexit done”.
Some prominent government supporters have been suggesting the pandemic is the reason for the country’s growing food and fuel crisis, when in reality much of the problem has been caused by Brexit.
A shortage of migrant workers – and an unwillingness on the part of Britons to take their place – has meant that in some areas crops have been left unharvested. There are reports of pigs being shot by farmers because of staff shortages at abattoirs. And a massive shortfall in HGV drivers means fewer food delivery lorries on British roads.
Despite the government recently having to triple the number of visas it gives out for seasonal workers in an effort to bring back temporary European workers, the measure has failed to address the problem. Now reports are emerging that some farmers have resorted to giving food away rather than watch it rot in their fields.
The critical shortage of road haulage drivers to ferry our food along the supply chain has been caused principally by Post-Brexit immigration rules, which make it much harder for drivers from the European Union to get jobs in Britain.
Further food shortages have been created by post-Brexit bureaucracy, creating delays at ports. When the freight that is held up by this new tier of bureaucracy contains food, any delay reduces the quality of that food, and in some cases this has led to it being rejected at its final destination.
And we can expect more severe disruption from this month as the government introduces formal checks on goods entering the UK from the EU. Further red tape, due to come in from January, will make matters far worse.
It gives me no pleasure to point out how utterly predictable this situation was. Indeed, shortly after the UK voted to leave the European Union I wrote a post expressing concern about the likely impact of Brexit on our food supply and supply of agricultural workers.
The issue now though, of course, is how we solve this crisis in the long term. Currently, the UK produces just over half of the food it consumes. That figure needs to improve drastically, yet in the interim we must simultaneously resist attempts to lower our food standards through imports of inferior foodstuffs intended to bridge that gap.
Work on farms must become more attractive for British and migrant workers, which means better pay and conditions. These will inevitably impact on food prices.
At a policy level, measures are needed to improve our relationship with food. Our diet is unsustainable and unhealthy. Obesity is on the increase, as is malnutrition and food poverty. This imbalance needs to be addressed through governmental intervention, including using taxation on unhealthy foods to subsidise healthy foods.
Reducing our meat intake will free up grazing land for growing crops, a far more efficient way to provide nutrients.
Government policy should also aim to encourage the development of shorter, more local food supply chains.
At an individual level, food shortages mean we may well come to appreciate the value of food much more than we do now – which would be no bad thing.
Reducing our food waste might become a financial necessity, again a welcome development.
As well as supporting local producers, we can all grow at least some of our own food. Bridging the gap between the food we eat and its source develops a deeper appreciation of that food, reduces food waste and air miles and encourages greater sustainability.
Brexit has been disastrous for our food industry so far, but with imagination and commitment we can use the harsh lessons that we are beginning to learn as a springboard to build a healthier and more sustainable food system for the generations to come.
I am very fond of this dish, which originates from north India but is a kind of Indian/Chinese fusion, with the vegetables being quickly stir fried before being enveloped in a deliciously rich and spicy sauce.
“Kadhai” is the name of a traditional Indian cooking vessel rather similar to a wok.
For a vegan version of this dish, substitute pressed tofu blocks for the paneer.
2 x 225 g blocks paneer, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 red onions, sliced lengthways into 8 wedges
1 red pepper, sliced lengthways into 1 cm strips
1 green pepper, sliced lengthways into 1 cm strips
200 g courgettes, thinly sliced
150 g broccoli, separated into 2-3 cm florets
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp garam masala
10 g fresh coriander, chopped
10 ml groundnut oil, plus more for deep frying the tofu
for the sauce
2 x 400 g cans organic chopped tomatoes
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 fresh green chillies, seeds in, finely chopped
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground fenugreek
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp sea salt
10 ml groundnut oil
1. First make the sauce. Place your wok (or kadhai if you have one) over a medium to high heat and add the groundnut oil. Once the oil is hot, add the chopped garlic and stir fry for 30 seconds, making sure it does not burn, then add the dried red chillies. Keep stirring for another 30 seconds then add the onion. Stir-fry for 5 minutes or until the onion is soft and translucent, then stir in the ground coriander, ground fenugreek, green chilli and ginger, followed by the tomatoes and sea salt. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat slightly to maintain a simmer. After ten minutes, the sauce should have reduced and thickened. Stir in the garam masala then remove from the heat. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or saucepan and set to one side.
2. Clean the wok, place over a medium to high heat and pour in the groundnut oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the red onion and peppers. Stir fry for two minutes, then add the paneer, courgette and broccoli. Stir-fry for a further three minutes, then stir in the garam masala.
3. Pour in the sauce and stir-fry for a further minute, ensuring all the ingredients become coated in the sauce. Remove from the heat, scatter the chopped coriander over the top and serve immediately, accompanied by Indian flatbreads or plain basmati rice.