Last week was the 199th anniversary of start of the Manx Corn Law Riots of 1821 in Peel, Isle of Man, which subsequently spread across the Isle of Man throughout October. The reason for the riots was simple: wealthy landowners on the Isle of Man had proposed that the Manx Government should enforce a policy of “self-sufficiency” on the Island, prohibiting the importation of food from elsewhere.

As a result, food prices surged, harming the cost of living of working class families.

These Manx Corn Laws were broadly similar to the Corn Laws across in the UK which restricted the importation of food from elsewhere. Around 50 years earlier, the great Scottish thinker and liberal, Adam Smith, predicted what would happen when supply was restricted:

When the quantity of any commodity which is brought to market falls short of the effectual demand, all those who are willing to pay… cannot be supplied with the quantity which they want… Some of them will be willing to give more. A competition will begin among them, and the market price will rise.

The Weath of Nations, Adam Smith, p.56

Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Imports of food from elsewhere was restricted, reducing supply. Consequently, competition began amongst people who wanted to eat, and the market price rose. This made food more expensive.

Bernadette Weyde described what happened next:

On Sunday evening, September 30th, 1821, a sensation was created in Peel when a number of people became incensed at certain persons who had signed a petition to prohibit the importation of foreign corn stuffs. The mob did much damage — smashed the window of Ward’s house and shop and the shops of the flour dealers.

Corn Law Riots Of 1821

Over subsequent weeks, the riots spread to Douglas, where one trader offered cheaper flour – but strictly rationed it.

History Repeats

Sadly, it seems that in our modern world, we are doomed to repeat the same arguments over and over again. With politicians looking to harvest votes in the Isle of Man next year, they are likely to try to say things that they think are popular, even if they are completely insane when you think about them. Take, for example, this short clip of Isle of Man Government member Martyn Perkins.

“I think COVID has really focused people’s minds on how we should be self-sustainable.”

Covid-19 has highlighted need to be self-sustainable – Perkins
Manx Radio

This is a significant change from the Government’s previously stated – and much less ambitious – policy to merely “grow the contribution of the food sector to the Isle of Man’s economy.”

The only way that a call to become “self-sustainable” has any meaning is as a call to substantially reduce imports, and to substantially increase domestic production. Of course, because this is just a small soundgrab in a radio interview, no concrete proposals were offered on how to achieve this. Not only are they historically illiterate, but calls for our island to be self-sustaining raise obvious comparisons to the only other nation which seeks to be entirely self-reliant: the “Juche” philosophy of North Korea.

Trying to be self-sustainable is a crazy idea in the wake of a global pandemic. Our food and other essential supplies were resilient in the face of a once-in-a-century-pandemic because they draw from across the entire planet. No one in the Isle of Man starved this year due to the pandemic because when meat plants in one part of the world were disrupted, meat plants in other parts of the world were able to continue.

While we take that resilience for granted, calls for self-sustainability put that safety in jeopardy. They risk causing great harm to the Isle of Man. Imagine, for a moment, that all meat eaten on our island was processed through the local meat plant. Can you imagine a more dangerous situation for a virus that appears to be more virulent in colder areas? Indeed, many outbreaks in meat plants took place in 2020:

Hundreds of workers have tested positive for coronavirus at meat processing plants and abattoirs.

They include a chicken processing site in Anglesey, where more than 150 workers have become infected with Covid-19, and plants in Wrexham and West Yorkshire.

There have also been major outbreaks in Germany, France, Spain and the US.

Bev Clarkson from the union Unite, says: “Unite has warned time and again that coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories throughout the UK were likely”.

Coronavirus: Why have there been so many outbreaks in meat processing plants?

Imagine if, instead of drawing on our meat suppliers from across the world, in dozens of different meat processing plants and abbatoris, we had to rely on just one. Imagine the horrific harm that this vulnerability might cause to the people of the Isle of Man. These nutty policies that obviously haven’t been thought through have the real risk of creating starvation on the Isle of Man.

The old parable to not put all your eggs in one basket is important in this context too. We don’t need to be self-sufficient. Rather, the safest option for the Isle of Man is to have a large diversity of suppliers: both locally and abroad. This is why there will never be a starvation in Singapore (which produces very little food locally) but there is a big chance of starvation in North Korea (which tries to produce all food locally). It isn’t the distance travelled which is important for food security, but the redundancy, resilience and diversity of suppliers.

The header image The Wild Geese by James Baillie is of riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s. I couldn’t easily find any public domain images of the Manx riots – Let me know if you have any.

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