Magazine article Soundings

UK Food Security: Peak Oil, Climate Change and Unstable Commodity Prices Mean That British Agriculture Is in Need of a Radical Transformation

Magazine article Soundings

UK Food Security: Peak Oil, Climate Change and Unstable Commodity Prices Mean That British Agriculture Is in Need of a Radical Transformation

Article excerpt

Until recently, anyone raising concerns about the UK's food security with government ministers and policy-makers was likely to be dismissed as an anti 'free-trade' xenophobic crank, harking back to the days of the last war, when German U-boats threatened to cut-off our supplies of food and fuel - the majority of which were still being convoyed in from our former colonies.

The U-boat torpedoes focused public and political attention on the need for maintaining a significant strategic resource of home-grown production, and after the war, public subsidies and research and development funding were poured into agriculture. Farmers were encouraged to modernise, mechanise and become specialised arable or livestock producers, and to shift away from what was seen as inefficient, sentimentalist 'Old McDonald-style' farming - where each farm ran a mix of different enterprises. In tandem with this increased specialisation went a much greater reliance on off-farm inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals for livestock. Yields and overall productivity were boosted: the proportion of foodstuffs consumed in Britain that are home-grown has risen from the pre-war total of around 30 per cent to over 70 per cent today. And alongside this production-focused push, the agri-businesses - which supplied the agrochemicals and other inputs that farmers could afford because of public subsidy - also boomed.

Superficially this policy-driven farming renaissance was a triumph of technological achievement, with greater quantities of food being produced at affordable prices for the British public. And for the past sixty-years, ensuring plentiful 'cheap food' has been the goal of successive governments, whatever their political leanings. But this single-minded focus on squeezing out maximum tonnes of grain or head of livestock per hectare has not been without controversy or cost - for wildlife, animal welfare and the livelihoods of rural people. The damage to wildlife habitat and diversity has been well rehearsed: 95 per cent of Britain's wildflower-rich meadows have been ploughed-up and sprayed out since 1945. And initiatives or regulation to counter the damage have been limited in their ambition and effects - as, for example, the modest schemes whereby farmers are rewarded for looking after wildlife rather than destroying it, brought in after years of campaigning by conservation groups. Even major human health scares such as mad cow disease - linked to the intensive farming practice of feeding ground-up cattle and sheep remains back to vegetarian livestock as protein - have only resulted in minor adjustments to the dominant industrial food production model. For the majority of food production across most of the world, 'business as usual' has continued. However, over the past couple of years several factors have come together to call into question the long-term sustainability of this system, forcing the issue of food security higher up the agenda - in affluent countries such as the UK as well as in the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that are familiar 'poster-boys' of famine and poverty.

From 2006 to 2008 global food prices rose rapidly, fuelling social and political unrest in 14 countries worldwide - causing 'tortilla riots' in Mexico and protests over the price of pasta in Italy. In the UK food price inflation has been a problem since June 2008, and growing public and media interest has at last provoked some welcome activity from government. Indeed, the first review Gordon Brown commissioned on becoming prime minister was a Cabinet Office Strategy Unit analysis of food issues generally. Their initial report, circulated in January 2008, concluded that 'existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future'; and that 'existing patterns of food consumption will result in our society being loaded with a heavy burden of obesity and diet-related ill health'. …

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