Friday, 2 December 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt II

The Challenges for the UK
Given the challenges presented in the previous chapter the committee wanted to explore how the UK should best respond to both secure its own food supplies and help the global situation. The UK could do nothing and adopt a Head-in-the-Sand approach. Do little or nothing to improve the situation at home and leave other countries to respond to the problems, trusting in the ability of the British to respond to the world market. This may seem an irresponsible approach, but this actually was the UK governments approach until very recently.

Though it is accepted that Britain is unable to play a major role in increasing global food supplies, it is generally agreed that there is [2008] much land available for food production that is as yet unused. Such land can be found in land rich countries like Ukraine, Russia and parts of Latin America. In 2009 Vladimir Putin claimed that in Russia alone 20 million hectares [total UK land mass is 24 million hectares] of agricultural land, unused since 1991, could be re-launched. Brazil also makes claim to have 144 million hectares available for agricultural enterprise [presumably clear cut rain forest] despite its current sizeable input to global foodstuffs.

Despite land rich countries appearing to offer a solution to the challenge of feeding us into 2050, the reality is not so clear cut. Several issues were raised about future Brazilian production the most prominent being transportation, storage & sustainability. The poor roadways, waterways and rail network in Brazil posed a major problem [post harvest waste] as does their largest port which is not deep enough to accept the large ships used for large scale commercial shipping. The issue of sustainability revolves around the current Brazilian agricultural practices of clearing land for agriculture and the intensive methods used. As previously mentioned, intensive farming merely provides short term relief whilst building long term troubles.

Another concern with this as a working solution is the question of concentrated food supply. If Brazil were to supply 90% of the worlds chicken by 2018 for example, any disruption in the supply [disease closing export for example] would have a substantial global impact. Though there are issues and wider concerns with focussed production in certain areas, the committee concluded that as regards agricultural production, any land capable of such an enterprise should do so. Although land rich countries may offer a way to boost global food supplies, they felt that a healthy domestic food supply is essential to ensure a secure food system in the UK.

The Self Sufficient Approach
Instead of relying on potentially vulnerable food supplies from abroad the opposite approach is to source our food supplies from our own resources. The UK has not been self sufficient in the strictest sense for over 200 years and the rate of self sufficient output has dropped steadily since the mid 1990s.

Here it should be pointed out that self sufficiency should not be taken to mean 100% self sufficiency, rather a high level of self sufficiency. This is very important for similar reasons as not relying entirely on imports – should anything substantial happen to affect the output of “home” crops, the problem would be large scale. So in the interests of healthy diversity this approach is seen to be promoting a high level of self sufficiency in order to help spread risk. This still leaves the UK with substantial work to do.

In 2006 90% of UK food supplies came from 26 countries, this was up from 22 in 1996. The highest importer is the Netherlands accounting for 13% with EU countries making up 69% in total. Although spreading risk does involve spreading your supply around between countries, stable trading can’t be expected [Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe - Angela Merkel Oct 2011].

The report then goes on to detail “Land Grabbing”, the “emerging phenomenon” of corporate buying of large scale landmass in order to grow food for export to home countries. Whilst this is underway in a number of countries concerns arise as to the negative effects on the host country despite the initial benefits to the governments there. Local populations may lose property rights to land upon which they depend and investors may not consider the long term implications on the land in return for short term profits.

The Sustainable Production Approach
This all makes the claim for increased production of food in the UK with fruit and vegetables highlighted as priorities with cereals less so, as 90% of UK wheat consumption is already grown here. For that reason the report goes on to focus on fruit and vegetables.

Concerns have been raised about the level of UK fruit and vegetable production not least because only 10% of fruit consumed is grown here. For some products, production is actually receding despite demand for export. An example given is that of apple production:

Several sources also pointed out that not only is consumed UK produce low but the percentage of UK consumers eating healthy levels of fruit and vegetables is below international guidelines. If we followed such guidance we would actually eat 50% more in the UK than we do currently.

The report then goes onto cover meat and dairy production [omitted for brevity].

The Environmental Impact of Increased Production.
This is a short section essentially acknowledging that increased production should have some added impact on the environment, however as the increase we are speaking of in the UK is relatively small the impact is expected to be also. The NFU stated that increased production need not come at an unacceptable environmental cost. The committee feels that DEFRA should study what production increases are most likely in the UK estimate any impact on the environment that may occur.

Local and Home Production
So far the discussion has centred on production at a national level, here the committee turns its attention to local food networks and home production – either in gardens or allotments. Both types of production being acknowledged as being beneficial to the security of the UK food supply. Monty Don, President of the Soil Association said:

If you can devolve the production and consumption so that they are as close together as possible, and the obvious example of that are of farmers’ markets or farm gate sales, that is a healthy, very flexible way of supply and demand

The supply and demand relationship is even closer in the case of home production, contributing to food security by providing access to affordable fruit and vegetables for people. Local food networks and home production also have the advantage of greater reduced emissions from transport [food feet not food miles]. Another aspect of local food production is to make more use of traditional sources of food which have declined in popularity over recent years.

There is another even stronger argument in favour of local and home food production, the committee maintains – that of active involvement in food production. As they are all too aware, the consumer will have to change their behaviour toward food going forward. Making a real connection with their food is a vital part of this process. This was further supported by an argument put forward by Waitrose – that a sea change in consumer behaviour was necessary to guarantee the sustainability of UK producers. The UK government feels compelled to promote this formidable task [hence the grow your own scene developing since 2008] with specific emphasis on school children.

End of Part II

I hope you found this article on the Securing Food Suplies to 2050 report interesting.  The next article should conclude my summary.

Thanks for reading.


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