Home Economics This Isn't About Cheap UK Food It's About Immigration

This Isn’t About Cheap UK Food It’s About Immigration



One of the bods who consults to the United Nations tells us that the UK’s Covid-19 performance is all about our commitment to cheap food. This is of course entire nonsense and a newspaper should know better than to propagate such foolishness.

To start with the UK doesn’t have a cheap food policy. We are currently inside the European Union’s tariff barriers and will remain so until January 1 2020 – deo volente we’ll leave then. The EU’s tariff barriers apply far more to food than anything else and they are there specifically and exactly to make food more expensive within the European Union.

We simply do not have a cheap food policy, not until we go all 1846 on the Corn Laws we don’t.

But there’s more to it than that:

Cramped conditions in some factories and in low-paid workers’ homes, spurred by the UK’s desire for cheaply produced food, may have driven infection rates in the sector, according to David Nabarro, a World Health Organization special envoy on Covid-19.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK avoided the scale of Covid-19 outbreaks seen in meat factories and other food processing plants in countries such as the US. But a Guardian analysis suggests that reported UK outbreaks of the disease are now increasing in frequency, with examples of cases spreading into the wider community.

While there is no suggestion of breaking social distancing rules, factories by their nature involve large numbers of workers under one roof.

Unions say most of those working in UK meat, poultry and other mass food production plants are foreign migrant workers who share accommodation and transport.

Nabarro, speaking in his capacity as a professor at University College London’s Institute for Global Health, raised the issue of low pay, which may mean employees exposed to the virus feel pressured to keep working. A culture of cheap food was based on driving production costs down – but at a price, he said.

That is not a function of cheap food that is a function of migration and immigration. The indigenes will not work in such conditions, for such wages that gain access to such housing. This is why the firms involved employ those migrants in the first place. What looks like not worth the bother of getting up in the morning to someone from Tiverton looks like a grand job to someone fleeing the memory of socialism from Timisoara.

The very fact that these factories are largely staffed by such migrants is the very proof needed that this is about migration and immigration, not cheap food.

Now, what we do about it is another matter. But we can only, obviously enough, solve perceived problems if we identify the cause in the first place. As everyone involved here is acting voluntarily then hte base assumption must be that each position is better for the person involved than the other options available to them. Hacking at chickens in Tiverton is indeed better than the rubble socialism created in Timisoara. So, let’em come. To the extent that food is cheaper as a result then all consumers are better off. That is, as so often with market outcomes, nothing need be done at all.

But again, to reach that point we’ve got to understand what it is causing the problem. We certainly can’t blame it on the cheap food policy we don’t have.



  1. Get this “A culture of cheap food was based on driving production costs down” – ignorant as it gets. Damn near any organization seeks to drive production costs down. If you’re making $200 Nike shoes or top of the line champagne you look to drive production costs down. True, in many cases government or not-for-profit organizations are indifferent to it if their funding is secure enough, but even they pursue lower costs in most areas.

  2. At least Nabarro has mentioned an important problem, even if he has inserted it into his piece in the wrong place. The single biggest non medical correlator with the CV-19 death rate is overcrowded housing, not population density, not income inequality, not being foreign. The government in its housing formula states that every adult over 16 should have their own bedroom, with couples expected to share. Children under 11 can share a room , and under 16 if the same sex. If you’re in a household where there are insufficient bedrooms then you are quite a bit more likely to have had struggles with CV-19 or have died.
    Not just my view, Shelter and Inside Housing have banged on about overcrowded housing, and been largely ignored.

  3. Poor people cannot afford big housing, film at ten.

    What’s the solution? Ban people from living in fewer rooms than they need? Send the inspectors round to count the occupiers? Chuck ’em out of the only places they can afford to live in? Force ’em to move house each time they have a baby, or one of their offspring passes a threshold age? And where to? To somewhere bigger and less affordable than what they are currently occupying.

    • @jgh: You are asking the old question about what is the solution? There are only trade-offs, never solutions, but I can think of some that might help or are already in the pipe. Abolishing the NPPF and devolving planning policy to LAs, a brownfield last presumption in planning, the abolition of SPD and its sisters and SDLT to make housing allocation more efficient, to stopping subsidising large family formation in small houses. But I’m just glad that Nabarro has mentioned the problem, even if he didn’t headline with it.

  4. One could abolish all parks and green belts and leave the whole of the UK open to housing construction.

    Or of course the UK could make, and rigorously enforce, laws against immigration. Those who would otherwise have migrated can do the work in their home countries. Only the food need be imported.

  5. To start with the UK doesn’t have a cheap food policy. We are currently inside the European Union’s tariff barriers and will remain so until January 1 2020 – deo volente we’ll leave then.

    January 1st 2021, surely?

  6. Dear David Nobraino. Please explain the low death covid toll in South Africa where food costs about a tenth of what it costs in the UK. Then (as I’m sure you can’t) please turn around and face the wall.

  7. When was it we decided that we didn’t have enough poor people and had to import some more? When we did decide, did we not think it wise to have some sort of maximum in mind?

  8. Yes – to blame a mythical “cheap food policy” is the same as blaming dragons and unicorns, no such policy exists. What keeps down wages, and puts pressure on housing and so on, is mass low skill immigration – but the Guardian will not admit that.


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