10 August 2009

Can Britain be self sufficient in food?

Food security is back in the news and that's a good thing. I have long been concerned that the Government has done nothing to address the issue of food supply. Over the last 30 years, valuable farmland have been lost to development, leaving us with less space to grow our own food. Farmers have seen their incomes slashed and to make matters worse they are swamped with paperwork. On top of that there are the global issues of climate change, energy and water supplies, and the rapidly rising human population. More food is going to be needed and producing it is not going to be easy.

As a country we produce less food in the UK that we did in the 1980s, especially fruit, vegetables and beef. Its all very well saying we can import food, but crop failures caused by drought, or flood can easily change that. Countries will soon stop their exports if there is a shortage of food for their own people, as seen by the shortage in rice last year. Variabilities in oil price can push the price of cereals and fertilisers sky high and this is reflected in the rising costs in the shops.

So can the UK be self sufficient in food by 2030? At the moment about half the food we eat is home-grown. Of the rest, about two-thirds comes from the EU, the rest is sourced elsewhere. Reversing the trend is going to be a tall order and I think its going to mean changes in our attitude to food. For starters, we are so wastful of food - and thats the whole food chain - not just the consumer. As much of 40 per cent of the crops in the fields does not get to the shops because of damage, spoilage in storage, or failure to meet quality standards. Then there is wastage at the processors, distributors and in the shops. Finally the consumer comes along and throws away as much as one-third of the food they buy. That's a massive 6.7 million tonnes worth more than £10 billion.

One way forward is to improve the consumer's connection with their food and this is where the wonderful trend to 'grow your own' is going to help . I'm lucky as I have a small organic farm and we are self sufficient in eggs and meat, and for most of our vegetables. I know that I use all the veg I grow, even the mis-shaped carrots and nibbled cabbages, and all of the vegetable waste goes into the wormeries or the pig pens. Raising your own animals changes your attitudes too. Having cared for them for many months, you don't like the killing, but you are determined to make sure their meat is put to good use, otherwise you feel you have let them down. Consequently we have learnt new skills to process their meat into bacon, ham, pate etc, while the vegetable gluts are frozen, dried, or processed into chutney and the like. Then you discover that food excites you again and you want to experiment with new recipes, and grow more! It is addictive. So hopefully the great stories that I read about people growing veg on every available space, about community supported agriculture, pig-sharing and villages becoming self sufficient in eggs etc., mean that we will reduce our dependency on imported foods.

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