Monday 5 December 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt III

DEFRAs vision for food

A number of submissions, mainly from the retail and manufacturing sectors, made clear that DEFRA should articulate the role of securing food supplies in the long term. Waitrose drew attention to the governments improved rhetoric on the matter, but called for clarity in guiding sustainable food production. Sainsburys called for greater leadership by DEFRA and centralised policies. The Co-operative group, which is the UKs largest commercial farmer as well as running stores, called for DEFRA to adopt a leadership role between the various parties involved in improving UK food security. These sentiments were echoed by the Food & Drink Federation. The Country Land & Business Association expressed a slightly different point. It commented that the government was still grossly-underestimating the scope and role of policy to address in this area. They expressed concerns about the over riding EU policies affecting UK food production and distribution.

The EU has also shown signs of elevating the issue of food security in reports of its own [Why can’t farmers just farm?] though some proponents claim the EU has no issue with food security and policy should be dictated by national governments.

In conclusion the committee felt that the UK should develop a stronger UK policy whilst considering EU directives.

DEFRAs progress

Though it is easy to conclude that DEFRA has fallen short on the issue of food, it should be noted this has mainly been due to a previous preoccupation with climate change, which has been since moved to another government department. Bearing that in mind DEFRA set itself a target date for developing strategy policy of October 2009.

A reflection of the direction DEFRA was taking was indicated at the Oxford farming conference in January 2009 by Hilary Ben:

The best way for the UK to ensure its food security in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable British agriculture, and trading freely with other nations. And just so there is no doubt about this at all, let me say the following. I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs. No buts. And the only requirements should be, first that the consumers want what is produced and, second, that the way our food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.

Impressive as this sentiment was, as Professor Lang commented, it was just a speech and not directed DEFRA policy to encourage corporate powerhouses, supermarkets and farmers to plan long term sustainable partnerships.

In fact the cabinet office report Food Matters set out the governments future objectives for food. Domestic production is not even mentioned which, state the committee, underlines the importance of DEFRA taking firm action to employ the policy frameworks needed to see Hilary Bens aims become a reality.

This is not without its challenges as DEFRA is faced with making short term swift policy decisions yet is tasked with applying long term vision. The short term political cycle is cited as a frequent disruptive hurdle in the process of longer term policy aims. Securing food supplies is not about implementing policy that will last for 5 years, but 40-50 years. This particular challenge places even more focus on building consensus of opinion between parties in order to maintain order in policy despite the ebb and flow of the political cycle.

The report then goes onto to outline DERFAs approach to assessing risks and the structure it needs to employ to see its vision through.

Acting on the Vision

This chapter discusses the effectiveness of food production targets, the Common Agricultural Policy, the focus for Research & Development, Genetically Modified Organisms, Agricultural Skill Development and the UK Food Supply Chain. [Though a substantial chapter I have omitted details here].

The report ends with a conclusion covering all the points mentioned. On Local and Home production in particular, the commission concludes that:

We welcome the increasing enthusiasm among customers for buying food that is local to a particular area of the UK, and also for growing their own food. In terms of overall production, these trends are a small contribution to a huge challenge, but they are a way of reconnecting people with food production and have an important part to play in encouraging the sorts of behaviour that will be necessary for a sustainable system of food production. The role of local and home production, and of educating people about food, should be incorporated in DEFRAs vision and strategy for food. When it has been established that their has been an unmet demand for allotments in a local authority area, the government should require the local authority to publish, within three years, a plan setting out how it proposes to meet that demand.

It's very clear where we stand on this issue in Cowling. The PC provides an inadequate number of half sized plots that are badly kept and poorly managed.  This is a state of affairs that predates my involvement of going on 6 years.  A look back through their own records shows the PC does little more than acknowledge the lack of provision, whenever the issue is raised, before ignoring the matter completely.  Yet the facts remain:
  1. Allotments are a statutory right of those UK taxpayers wishing to claim them.
  2. Allotments are an important community resource and are promoted by government.
In a change of direction since we pushed this subject more public while resisting attempts to manage our involvement; the PC have closed as many doors of communication as they are able whilst making so far hollow public claims of "doing their best" on the matter.

As we've done the right thing by paying our taxes and waiting patiently for more years than is considered constitutionally acceptable by our government, any chance of those that wanted to be representatives of their local community doing the right thing as representatives of the local community?


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.