Soil Association

Food Security - an issue for the UK too, says Soil Association

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Source: Soil Association

For its annual World Food Day (Thurs 16 Oct), the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) rightly focuses on the 923 million people suffering from malnutrition in the South - highlighting climate change as the key factor threatening their long-term food security. In the short-term, rising oil prices have led to increasing food costs and scarcities, provoking riots in over a dozen countries from Burkina Faso, Haiti, to Mexico. The diversion of land for biofuel crops has also been a factor - with the world’s largest grain producer and exporter, the US, diverting nearly 20% of its harvest to feed cars, rather than people.

Robin Maynard, Soil Association campaigns director, said, 'Traditionally, food security has been seen as an issue only for developing countries - and that view still dominates Government thinking. But climate change and scarcer, more costly oil threaten to unravel our current food and farming system too.

'With its dependence on oil and fossil-fuel based chemicals, the majority of present day UK agriculture is less resilient than the form of mixed farming that overcame the U-boat blockade of our food imports during world war two. Ironically, it is more vulnerable to the coming challenges of climate change and peak oil than the low-input, high-labour agriculture practised by many developing country farmers.'

In a review of food issues published in January 2008, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit acknowledged that 'existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, or 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.' [3] [4]

Defra’s 2008 report on UK food security, whilst recognising the threat of climate change to global agriculture does not appear to see it or the additional challenge of ‘peak oil’ as presenting major difficulties for UK farming or the global markets,

'The UK currently enjoys a high level of national food security, which reflects the diverse and abundant supply of foodstuffs available in our supermarkets. We produce much of our food ourselves, and because the UK is a developed economy, we are able to access the food we need on the global market.' [5]

That statement seems dangerously complacent when the facts of the UK’s food security and vulnerability are considered:
The UK is currently around 58% self-sufficient in all foodstuffs consumed here, but much lower for certain food groups - over 90% of all fruit and 50% of vegetables are imported. Overall there’s been a 23% drop in food self-sufficiency since 1995.

Less than 1% of the UK population works in agriculture. When Cuba ‘lost’ its imports of fuel, fertiliser and pesticides following the collapse of the Soviet Union - some 15-24% of the country’s labour force had to be turned to growing food. In the UK in the early 1900s some 40% of the population was engaged in farming.

57% of UK Grade1 farmland (best) is at risk from climate change related sea level rise of between 26 - 86cm by the 2080s; making arable farming unviable on 86% of the Fens; 10% of the remainder of East Anglia, and 7% of the North West - unless expensive adaptations are made to flood defences. [6]

Globally, agriculture is calculated to be responsible for between 10-12% of the world’s total greenhouse gases. The scientific consensus is for 80% cuts on 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Although the oil price has halved from its recent high of $140 a barrel to around $75, long-term forecasts are for sustained higher prices - predicted to reach $200 a barrel over the next 5-10 years. [7] Higher oil prices mean higher input costs - fertiliser prices have doubled over the past year with 10-20% price hikes announced by major pesticide manufacturers.
44% of the UK’s arable soils are suffering from erosion, 36% at moderate to serious risk (Soil Survey England & Wales, R. Evans et al). Across Europe, soil erosion and degradation seriously affects near 157 million hectares (16% of Europe, nearly 3 times the total surface of France), making it the major environmental problem linked to the shift to intensive agriculture.

According to the UN, 10 million hectares of cropland are degraded or lost to erosion annually across the world. UNEP has stated that 50% of world’s arable land will be unusable by 2050.

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