In a perfect world, every country would be self-sufficient in everything it needed, including food. But, as if anyone needed telling when considering natural and man-made miseries round the globe, this is not a perfect world.
As far as British farmers are concerned the main effect of this imperfection is how prices and production in other countries impact on the prices they get for what they produce. And also what they pay for production necessities such as fertiliser, chemicals, fuel, machinery and vehicles.
Imports and exports in other words, attempts to sell into high-value markets abroad counteracted by other countries selling into the British market, their supermarket buyers versus our supermarket buyers, our manufacturers versus ours.
On a national scale, exports and imports are probably a good thing, vital to a trading nation. Back at the sharp end where an individual farmer is trying to make a living, it can make life difficult.
Pig farming is a case in point. Those farmers still producing pigs claim to be losing about £20 on every one sold while supermarkets use cheaper imported pork, much of it allegedly produced under much poorer animal welfare rules than Britain’s.
Does the average shopper care? Probably not. The enthusiasts for free-range pigs, rare breeds and speciality sausages and hams will continue to find some customers, and good luck to them, but the average budget-stricken mother shopping for a family of four or five simply can’t take the luxury price option.
The same is true of chicken. I’d rather not eat chicken at all than some of the specimens on offer at the lower end of the supermarket range, in the same way that when I eat sausages, they’re award-winners from a local butcher and not the kind, a popular cheap brand, I once watched being made from slaughterhouse scrapings.
But if you have a limited amount to spend on food each week, quite possibly don’t know much about nutrition and health and don’t go to stare in astonishment at some of the prices charged at farmers’ markets, there is every chance you’ll buy on price and won’t worry which country the product comes from.
There is an argument that we should care, as our self-sufficiency in food drops a little further every year. What happens if food supplies from overseas are cut off? Boosting food and drink exports to almost £11 billion, as Britain did last year, is one thing, but the total bill for imports is much higher.
Cheese is one example. British producers exported 112,000 tonnes of cheese last year, but imports were well over 300,000 tonnes. As with farming, the aggregate of individual decisions by hundreds of companies – those striving to export, those striving to import – can produce lopsided results. More sophisticated tastes and much greater choice also come into it – it’s a long way from the days when the main cheese imports were mousetrap cheddar and gorgonzola.
It means that for cheese and many other foods, any protests by farmers about the unfairness of imports fall on deaf ears. A quick check on vehicles, machinery, livestock and requisites for production on any farm will indicate that farmers are by no meants against all imports. There are also times when an export trade, such as live lambs, has been a vital factor in shoring up market prices.
In a perfect world, we would all get our just desserts, farmers and consumers, importers and exporters, shoppers and shops. As it is we all have to muddle on with winners and losers at every stage.
That sentence might have been a link to a few pithy comments on the budget, but I’ll sidestep that for two reasons. One is that I’m writing before the Chancellor’s statement, the second that by the end of this week millions of words will have been written or spoken on whatever financial rabbits he produces from the Treasury hat.
Whatever George Osborne has come up with, most small businesses – a financial definition that includes the great majority of farms – will find in these troubled times that it means a continued close relationship with their banks and suppliers.
That has been recognised by NFU Scotland with the announcement of a survey asking members how they see these relationships as they face rising costs for most supplies. Are overdraft facilities acceptable? Are some suppliers desperate for payment and reluctant to give credit?
The last such survey was in December 2008, when a third of farmers taking part reported concerns about their overdraft and one in ten said they had been refused an extension.
Since that survey it is unlikely that concerns have lessened or relationships with banks improved. The resentment felt about bankers’ bonuses can’t have helped. The results of the survey, stripped of any expletives those responding are tempted to use, will be interesting.