The National Farmers Union recently launched a campaign to reverse the decline in British food self-sufficiency, pointing out that just 62% of the food we eat is now grown by British farmers. The campaign was roundly condemned by the Guardian newspaper’s columnist Deborah Orr, who acknowledged the problems faced by British farmers, but claimed that UK produce is high quality and expensive, therefore out of reach for a significant proportion of the population.
It’s difficult to know where to start unpicking this story!
At one level Ms Orr’s rejection of the need for Britain to become increasingly self-sufficient illustrates the extent to which long food chains and the seemingly endless abundance of the supermarket shelves, have made us complacent and insulated us from the realities of food production. In reality many of us are only five meals away from going hungry at any given time. At another level, her assumption that we will always be able to import cheap (poor quality) food to feed everyone on low-incomes smacks of the class system, whilst also illustrating precisely why intensive farming of both crops and animals has been allowed to become the norm.
Ms Orr was born a decade after food rationing ended and has grown up during an era when it has seemed that over-production, not scarcity, was the problem. But Britain only just made it through the second world war without serious malnutrition because her namesake and close fellow countryman, John Boyd Orr anticipated the problems that war could bring and spent the years leading up to it working out how, with food imports greatly reduced, British farmers could produce enough food to provide the whole population with the essential daily minimum in terms of protein, carbohydrates, fats and vitamins. Working with Sir Jack Drummond, who brilliantly ensured the adequate nutrition of the nation by designing the war ration, Boyd Orr re-invigorated British agriculture and successfully avoided mass hunger. Sadly, successive administrations strove to increase productivity after the war by making agriculture progressively more exploitative, not more sustainable. And you can only exploit anything for a finite period of time.
Today the threat is not war, but the combination of climate change, natural resource depletion, the collapse in the number of pollinating insects and population growth. Crop yields are already falling in many parts of the world, and it is estimated that in South America and Africa, one-fifth of farmland will become unsuitable for crop production due to weather extremes over the coming decades.
Continuing to exploit the food resources of other countries in such circumstances is a form of neo-colonialism, as destructive and selfish as the worst excesses of our imperialistic past. But it is also wilfully naive. More than a hundred countries around the globe currently depend on US grain. With large parts of the US being prone to desertification and huge countries like Russia, China and Australia at the mercy of floods, droughts and in some cases extreme cold. This is a worrying situation, and one which future extremes of weather could turn into global food shortfalls of unimaginable proportions.
Ms Orr seems blissfully unaware that it is not just British farmers who cannot make a living producing food anymore, but farmers in almost every country on the planet, from North America to Vietnam, from New Zealand to the Cameroon. Given humanity’s inevitable need to eat, this is not a healthy situation. Farmers everywhere have been going out of business, and those that survive have done so only by borrowing massively to buy more land and machinery and stealing from future generations: depleting the fertility and structure of their soils, over-exploiting non-renewable resources and neglecting to address agronomically essential issues like land drainage and soil acidity, because they have no money for this. British farming might look superficially healthy on a sunny day, but dig deeper and it is showing the same fundamental signs of neglect and abuse as it did in the 1930s.
Most importantly of all, we must not wait for the crises to hit us, but start preparing now. If we try to solve the problem at the last minute by throwing more fertilisers and pesticides at it, we will push planetary ecosystems past their tipping point. The NFU is right that Britain needs to become more self-sufficient. But, we need more than the technical fixes they and the government currently advocate. While we still have time we must reform agricultural systems to make them genuinely sustainable: less reliant on fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides, able to work with nature not always fighting it, and a better guardian of our most precious resource, the soil.
Food prices will inevitably rise over the coming decades and that will cause dreadful hardship. People who earn just a dollar a day spend all their money on food and they will be hit hardest, but it is still in our hands whether prices simply double or increase exponentially. Farming is a long-term business and we need to lay solid foundations now if we are to avoid a crisis that will affect us all.
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