How best should Britain plan to secure reliable supplies of reasonably-priced food? Should the nation put its trust in home production or food imports from the world market?
This long-running debate was re-ignited last week by the government’s call for a radical rethink about food production and processing. This forms part of the country’s first food strategy rethink since the Second World War.
Finding the right answers will be vital not just for food manufacturers and processors, looking to secure regular and reliable supplies of food raw materials. It is important for everyone who does not wish to see a return to the widespread food shortages of the 1930s or the food rationing austerity of the 1950s.
Launching the review last week, environment minister Hilary Benn said: “Last year the world had a wake-up call with the sudden oil and food price rises. While we know the price of our food, the full environmental costs and the costs to our health are significant and hidden.”
How much warning?
On hearing his words, some UK farmers could be forgiven for heaving a hefty sigh of exasperation. How much warning does Benn, his political colleagues and other key policy-makers need?
Here’s a reminder:
- World food stocks are at historically low levels.
- Just-in-time delivery systems allow no margin for failure.
- High energy costs threaten both our ability to cart food around the world and some intensive production systems.
- Climate change, bringing water shortages and land pressures, undermine food production in many areas.
- Rapidly increasing world population.
- Growing reluctance among the have-nots to tolerate food and water poverty.
All of the above should make the siren voices that advise reliance on food imports ring hollow.
Also while the environmental impact of home-produced food is meticulously documented, scant regard is often paid to the provenance of imported food.
Every year Britain relies a little more on imports and a little less on domestic production. Only about 60 per cent of the food eaten in Britain is produced in Britain compared with about 80 per cent in the early 1980s.
So what should be done? The government’s fine words about the importance of farmers should be backed by action. The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) should acknowledge farmers’ key contribution to the development of effective and sustainable food production systems towards 2030 and act accordingly.
But since its launch in June 2001, DEFRA has focused not on food production but on minimizing agriculture’s environmental impact. British farms have become green but their output has fallen.
The fall in production must reverse if UK farmers are to play a full but environmentally sensitive role in boosting production. Central to that is farm profitability. The government’s own figures show that without farm income support from the European Union, farm incomes in real terms would have been negative in seven of the past 11 years. Food prices must rise if the government wants anyone to bother producing food in Britain.
There will be no quick fixes to the problem of food security. Genetic modification, suggested by some as a magic wand, will not make food worries disappear. Its technical contribution may be immense but its development should be in line with its social acceptability.
In addition to boosting domestic production, as Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, points out consumers need to eat more sustainably. They also need to accept a choice of 7,000 items in supermarkets not 30,000.
Food wastage is another area where urgent progress is needed. Up to 30 per cent of the food bought in Britain is thrown away. Imagine the land, energy and labour costs of growing, processing and transporting food whose ultimate destination is landfill.
Whatever the outcome of the current debate, a key part of the solution lies is in freeing farmers to do what they do best. That is producing safe, reliable food in sustainable ways. Imports will remain important but they should not be pre-eminent.
Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please email michael.stones ‘at’ decisionnews.com.