There are many calls to make the UK more food self-sufficient. The potential food crisis from climate change and the disruption of imports from the EU have brought the issues into focus. Some say it is impossible to be self-sufficient, but we could grow a lot more than we do now.
The idea that we can continue to rely on imports for an ever-increasing percentage of our food is irresponsible. The recent warnings from supermarket bosses that they cannot guarantee supplies of fresh produce when we leave the EU should ring alarm bells. Around 30% of fresh food comes across the Channel every day any interruption to that supply will quickly empty supermarket shelves.
“… about 10,000 containers of food come into the UK from the EU daily…” [SOURCE]
That is somewhere like a staggering 200,000 tonnes a day! In BREXIT briefing papers the government admit that half of our food is imported. That makes us vulnerable to interruptions of supply.
This is not a new issue. When I spoke to Professor Tim Lang in 2009 about food security, he said it was not just developing countries that had a precarious food supply. We take it for granted that there will always be all the food we want on supermarket shelves whenever we want it. That is the problem both in terms of the environmental cost of shipping food half-way round the world so we can have a continuous year-round supply of exotic fruit and veg which is now consider ‘normal’ in the Northern Hemisphere.
The greatest threat to food supplies will come form the changing climate. Weather patterns have certainly shifted over the last 10 years with spring coming earlier and autumn lasting longer. There are also many more severe weather events. All have an impact on food production across the World.
Then there is the issue of access to good food which is not universal across all social groups. The old mantra of ‘5 a day’ is often difficult to achieve for those living on low incomes.
Having enough land to grow food is becoming a major issue. Last week I saw massive housing developments on prime agricultural land. Over three developments it amounted to near 1000 hectares or 2500 acres which equates to 6-8 medium sized farms. Multiply that by what is happening across the country and it is a devastating amount of land taken out of production. That does not include the land used to build new roads and other infrastructure.
Land use priorities must shift to food production and more brown field sites should be used for housing. Building new house is a political issue used to secure votes in the short term. Future governments may well have to demolish new housing estates to provide land to grow food!
It makes no sense to continually destroy land that should be used to grow food. It is a very short sighted and politically opportune use of a valuable resource. We need to value agricultural land and the people who produce food and not rely on “the market” to sustain us.
These issues are not specific to the UK. It is crazy to think that we can import food from anywhere in the world regardless of the cost and the environmental impact. As the effects of climate change bite countries around the world will want to hang on to the food they grow and not export it. That has already happened on a small scale.
A lot of those issues are down to national and international governments, but we can do more for ourselves. For around 30 years I have continually argued for a return to growing food on a small scale on any piece of land. There needs to be more community gardens, allotments, market gardens and farms growing for local markets.
Access to locally produced food is the mantra of many environmental groups but it is not easy. The whole food supply structure is based around supermarkets and not smaller outlets. There used to be wholesale markets in every town, but most have gone. That makes selling what you grow more difficult and leaves small growers with no market for their produce. That means either setting up their own distribution network, e.g. a local veg box scheme or finding other outlets which is not easy.
We need to overcome the difficulties in supply and distribution at a local level which would effectively bypass central government. In rural areas it would need cooperation between growers and retailers. It can be done and is exactly what has happened around Machynlleth where a group of growers got together and started Green Isle Growers
We also need an education programme about growing food and how to cook from raw ingredients. Again, this will have to be at a community level because years of austerity have all but dismantled local adult education classes.
Most important of all we need to have real meaningful conversations about food, food security and what we can do about it. It is much too important to leave to politicians!