Commonplace, Vol. 1, Issue 13

In which there is consideration of Brexit-related stockpiling & food shortages

Hello! This issue looks at the concept of stockpiling for Brexit, since there’s a reasonable likelihood of food shortages, and tries to put some historical context around the idea, as well as providing some practical thinking.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble, has a Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/drewshiel. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (currently constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

Sue Shephard’s Pickled, Potted & Canned: How the Preservation of Food Changed Civilisation has a pithy couple of lines early on:

“Few people in the developed world have to worry about hunger any more. Yet the first thing everyone does when a crisis looms is to rush out and panic buy, stockpiling great quantities of preserved food.”

The bit about the developed world, though, is coming into some doubt, since it’s already clear that a very large number of children in the UK depend on school lunches for adequate nutrition, and the Tory attempts to block that (which, frankly, put them into the realm of comic villains, literally taking food from children) have been getting deservedly high levels of attention of late. Brexit is going to be of no help with that, and it’s becoming clear to a variety of people that there will be issues. There are plenty of things that just can’t usefully grown in the Isles.

There was a notable piece in The Grocer (a British magazine for the ‘fast moving consumer goods’, FMCG, sector) a little while ago in which the UK head of Tesco tried to communicate, simultaneously, that there would probably be food shortages after Brexit, and that people shouldn’t stockpile. I covered some of the practicalities of stockpiling - specifically for Brexit, as it happens - about two years ago in Gentle Decline, so this is more about the concept, why it’s sometimes necessary, and how it’s happened in history more the actual practicalities.

First, let’s look at hoarding and stockpiling. Obviously, these are overlapping concepts; both to do with putting up stores of food in times of crisis. And I suspect that a situation described as stockpiling by one person can well be described as hoarding by another. The difference lies in the availability of food; stockpiling is the responsible storage of food against necessity when it’s available, and it also implies the distribution of that food at need. Hoarding is when someone either acquires food unfairly during a time of need, or refuses to distribute (including selling) it when they have it. Hoarding also implies having more than you need.

So, to be clear, I’m talking here about stockpiling. Stash food in times of plenty (which is all the time, right now) against emergency, share it if you can at all, and don’t try to acquire a pile when supplies are low. This is the “Be Generous” of Gentle Decline’s “Move Inland, Plant Food, Be Generous” motto.

Of course, our modern houses, which only hold food for a week or so, and sometimes not even that, would be looked at askance by many of our ancestors. Before modern methods of preservation (freezing and canning), and easy and cheap transport of goods from places with different climates or opposed seasons, it was necessary for each household to have sufficient food in place in autumn to get through to when fresh food was available again in the late spring. In urban settings, this was less so; you could probably buy food from other people who had stored it, and you might not have much cooking facility yourself. But few enough people lived in urban settings before the Industrial Revolution.

So we have lots of traditional ways to preserve food; drying, pickling, jamming, jellying, dairying, salting, baking into hard pastries, candying, curing, and so on. Different cultures emphasise different methods, of course, and some of them weren’t available until sugar descended from being an elite good to an everyday thing. But if you investigated any rural house in autumn in, say, 1870, you’d find a good stock of food there, preserved in a wide variety of ways. This was just “preserving”, and it wasn’t seen as being in any way out of the ordinary. Our 20th- and 21st-century habit of not having much food in the house is kind of weird in that respect, and is a mark of our dependence on retail supply chains.

Although, to be fair, the UK with its high population density has been reliant on retail chains for longer than many places. See this Twitter thread for some details of apples in 1920:

Stockpiling also pre-dates (really pre-dates) modern food preservation. In 713, Anastasios II of Constantinople issued an order: the only people permitted to remain in the city were those who had their own supply of food sufficient for three years. This was in the context of a siege some 30 years before, which lasted for four years, and then fairly constant raiding and warfare since that. Anastasios was clearly a man of some foresight, because Constantinople was besieged again by the Umayyad Caliphate from 717-718. By food, he almost certainly meant “grain”; there were very few food preservation methods available then which would reliably keep for three years, but grain kept dry and vermin-free will last a long time.

Stockpiling is also done by governments and city authorities; indeed, that may be the main use of the term. In the modern era, they do so with salt and sand and fuel, and in times past, grain. London built a city granary in the late 16th century at Leadenhall, and there were plenty of others across Europe. But there’s plenty of evidence to show that keeping grain, in particular, in the medieval era was more of a household pursuit than a corporate one. There’s an excellent paper from the Economic History Review, Storage in medieval England: The evidence from purveyance accounts, 1295–1349, by Jordan Claridge and John Langdon (and I’ll let the link there do the work, rather than quote extensively) which essentially concludes that grain storage was done per household rather than on any larger scale.

My own reading of 18th and 19th century Irish household recipe books, of which there are a good few in the Manuscripts section of the National Library, has shown that a good two-thirds of the recipes in them are for preservation (and most of the rest for baked goods). It’s not as though the kind of households which kept manuscript recipe books were short on money, but it was far more economic for them to preserve some of the output of their gardens than to buy in food later in the year. Many such books have two or three different recipes for each fruit or vegetable, inherited from older books or copied from those of friends or relatives.

So, broadly, stockpiling of one sort or another was a common-sense, ordinary practice through much of history. The fact that it’s now seen as being a fringe, doomsday-prepper-ish practice is in some ways the product of an industry that would much rather have us keep buying fresh (or at least new) food from them every week; even when in some cases, that food is preserved and coming from that industry’s own warehouse stockpiles. John Allan of Tesco doesn’t want you to stockpile because it’s bad for Tesco’s cashflow, not because of any greater motive.

From conversations I’ve had elsewhere, people are going to want to know why I’m not advocating growing one’s own food here. There are two reasons for this. First, it’s October. There’s little enough you can plant now that will feed you in January (although I’m trying out potatoes in containers myself). Second, growing food is a better strategy for long-term food security than for immediate supply. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap (certainly not if you compare the time spent to your per-hour earnings), and the chances of you getting more than a few meals per square metre of garden unless you’re really good at it are low. It is not going to get you through the potential food shortages in January 2021, whereas having a stash of pasta and canned tomatoes will mean you don’t have to deal with supermarket queues, buying limits, and all the other unpleasantness, not to mention whatever COVID-19 handling measures are in place by then.

Let’s take a look, though, at what food shortages are likely to look like in the actual shops and supermarkets.

First, there are going to be some bare shelves and boxes. The Tesco article linked above notes:

The UK is particularly reliant on the EU for fresh fruit & vegetables during the winter months. The short-shelf life of the product means supermarkets struggle to build up inventory for more than a few weeks.

Where there are old-fashioned greengrocers’ shops, they may be very low on stock; certainly the local one here, if you took away the EU-derived produce, would have potatoes, onions, cabbage and jam left. Maybe some apples. I can’t imagine that UK ones are very different, except where they’re farm shops; we’ve few enough of those here.

Supermarket vegetable aisles are liable to be pretty empty. Given that the current style in supermarket layout pretty much worldwide (I’ve done some research into this; there’s very little difference anywhere) emphasises open areas with slanted racks or table-top boxes of produce, this is particularly glaring when there’s nothing there. And those areas are usually pretty close to the entrances to supermarkets, which gives the casual shopper (if such a beast still exists) something of a shock. That’s important in terms of panic buying; seeing empty shelves, even in social media, let alone in person is one of the major drivers.

("The empty shelves of Tesco" by laser2k is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Once the fresh produce isn’t there, people will turn to preserved stuff - frozen and canned vegetables. Of course, a lot of those are supplied from the EU as well - possibly even more than the fresh goods. So those shelves will clear as well. And once the canned food and fresh food are gone, it’s open season as people panic and grab everything. This is the point at which people really do start hoarding; buying stuff they’ve never eaten before and probably won’t eat this time, because they feel they need to bring something home. And the more shelves that clear, the more people panic, and so it goes.

Supermarkets are likely to impose per-buyer limits on some goods. Mostly people are good about following these. Only a few will argue with the cashier, circle around a second time to buy more, or otherwise try to dodge the rules, but there’s a very human reaction to “LIMIT OF 2 PER CUSTOMER” which goes “bugger, I’d better get my two, even though I’ve never bought those things before”. And there will be a few people who will argue and even fight; we’ve seen that with the pandemic rules for access to retail.

It’s worth noting that supply chains apply to more than food - a quick look around your bathroom or utility room will show you how many of the goods there come from the EU (~80% on a quick survey of the bathroom here). If food is being prioritised through the new customs points, then other things can’t be. So it’s not daft to get some extra soap and toothpaste.

One of the details that causes me some real concern in the Tesco article is that John Allan is saying the issues will last “a few months”. That’s not something you want to hear from a business operating on a just-in-time supply chain. Things will be ok as long as there’s sufficient food coming into the country, more or less, even if fresh produce is in short supply - but if that delay results in actual food shortages, there will be trouble. And I expressly do not want to be doomsaying and fearmongering here, but food shortages have toppled governments throughout history, and it’s been very clear in the last week in the UK that the Tories do not understand this at all. Since a lack of understanding of reality is what got them where they are now, this isn’t surprising, but a number of them have gone straight into Marie Antoinette territory. I have zero confidence in them handling any actual food riots at all well.

So: if you live in the UK, do a little bit of careful, sane stockpiling, please. Details on what to acquire and how to go about it are in the old Gentle Decline issue, and if you have questions, fire them this way.

This issue has been brought to you by the new lockdown, mapmaking on zoom, thirteen different kinds of mushroom spotted on dog walks, and a cat firmly devoted to scallops. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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