You may have enjoyed tatties and neeps with your haggis at a Burn’s Night supper, content in the knowledge the orange slush you were consuming was boiled swede, but to the Scot (and Irish and Canadian), it is turnip.

The humble turnip, much loved by Blackadder’s Baldrick, was in the news recently thanks to an ill-considered remark made by gaffe-prone environment secretary Thérèse Coffey. 

As bad weather emptied supermarket shelves of tomatoes and other fresh produce, she suggested people should ‘cherish’ seasonal foods such as turnips. 

Digging the hole deeper, she added: “A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar.”

Predictably, she was subjected to a fair amount of ridicule in the press. 

It appears she and Baldrick are alone in their enthusiasm for the root vegetable, particularly for the woody and tough winter-grown ones which were described by Guy Singh-Watson who runs the Riverford vegetable box company as ‘an abomination’. 

But however clumsily put, Ms Coffey does have a point.

In December 2021, the government published a UK Food Security Report. 

The report highlighted that since 2010, the UK’s food system has been impacted by leaving the EU, by climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It suggested these had ‘stress-tested’ the supply chain highlighting vulnerabilities but also ‘the resilience and flexibility of the UK’s food supply’. 

In response, the government published a food strategy for England on June 13, 2022, outlining several actions that it had taken, or would take, to relieve pressures on food supply.

But at the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference, Minette Batters, the president, warned the ‘clock is ticking’ for the government to protect home-grown food supply. Farmers were still being hit by labour shortages, high costs, the impacts of climate change and global political turmoil. 

Agricultural costs have risen by almost 50 per cent since 2019 and the poultry industry – severely affected by bird flu – has seen UK egg production fall to its lowest level in nine years. 

No surprise to those of us trudging around supermarkets to find them.

Ms Batters added: “There are three cornerstones on which a prosperous farming sector must be built and which any government should use to underpin its farming policy. They are boosting productivity, protecting the environment and managing volatility.” 

The agricultural sector has previously warned many farms have cut production to limit losses from high inflation and energy bills. 

There are empty sheds across the country which should be growing fruit and vegetables, but farmers simply can’t afford the energy and labour costs to put them back into production.

With global instability and disruption to supply chains, we cannot continue our over-dependence on imported food. 

In 2020, the UK imported 46 per cent of the food it consumed. 

Quite apart from the environmental impact of transporting food for many miles from its source and the energy consumed to cultivate out-of-season salad vegetables across southern Europe and north Africa, increasing domestic food production is a strategic necessity on a par with protecting our energy supplies.

Perhaps Ms Coffey should have been reminded that in Roman times the turnip was the favoured vegetable of the mob to pelt unpopular politicians, the tomato having yet to be introduced from the New World. 

She may have expressed herself poorly, but she has highlighted a real issue. Without a concerted effort of this and future governments to address the problems confronting the farming community, further food shortages are inevitable.

By David Podger

Petersfield Liberal Democrats