Defra complacent on food security, says Soil Association

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Countryfile ran a feature on food security last weekend. Rob Maynard, of the Soil Association, put forward the relevance of Organic production as a viable low-carbon system, less reliant on fossil fuels. Countryfile – watch again.

Defra complacent on food security

Source: Soil Association

Today, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is due to make a statement on the UK’s food security policy, following a 6-month consultation process [1].

That process was prompted by global food prices rising over 2006-2008 with social and political unrest in 14 countries worldwide. Whereas, previously, ministers and officials had dismissed any queries over the UK’s food security, heightened media and public concern raised the issue up the political agenda. The first review Gordon Brown commissioned on becoming Prime Minister was a Cabinet Office Strategy Unit analysis of food issues. The initial report published in January 2008 concluded, ‘existing patterns of food production are not fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future.’ [2]

Despite that conclusion, Defra’s line to date has reflected its faith in the global market to provide; characterising the UK as ‘a rich country, open to trade’, so ‘well-placed to access sufficient foodstuffs through a well-functioning world market.’ [3]

However, the Soil Association’s analysis, supported by independent research, shows that view is dangerously complacent – given the pressing challenge of curbing climate change and the longer-term inevitability of scarcer, costlier energy and other inputs [4].

Robin Maynard, Campaigns Director said,
“Looking at supermarket shelves laden with produce from around the world, it’s hard to believe our food supply is anything but secure – a few months back the same would have been said about the global banking system.
A truly sustainable and secure UK agriculture, ‘fit for a low-carbon, more resource-constrained future’, will require less oil and fewer chemicals; that means switching to mixed-farming, organic techniques – such as rotations and clover to sustain long-term soil fertility and structure. It will also need greater numbers of people involved in food production, as well as rebuilding essential infrastructure to support more localised food distribution [5].

If that sounds ‘pie-in-the sky’ consider that London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson and his food Czar, Rosie Boycott are prioritising strengthening the capital’s food security by creating 2,012 growing spaces across the capital by 2012,as well as a network of food distribution hubs.”

The UK food-chain is less resilient than it appears, depending on vast inputs of oil and chemical fertilisers, which face constraints both on available, affordable supply and for curbing climate change. To meet the Government’s agreed target of 80% cuts in greenhouse gases, non-organic farmers’ reliance on artificial fertiliser, the biggest global source of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, will have to be drastically reduced [6].

Officials claim that because the majority of the UK’s food imports come from within the ‘stable markets’ of the EU, we have nothing to worry about – yet most European agriculture is also heavily reliant on oil, fertilisers and other finite resources. With 70% of EU livestock feed imported, our food system’s dependency on other countries’ land, water, energy and labour is starkly apparent [7].

For media enquiries contact:

Campaigns director, Robin Maynard 07932 040452
Press office, Sam Allen 0117 314 5170 / 07747 021 117 press@soilassociation.org

Notes to Editors:
[1] Defra consultation process launched 17/7/08 with discussion paper, ‘Ensuring the UK’s food security in a changing world.’

[2] The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit was asked by the PM in summer 2007 to look at food and food policy issues, an initial report was produced in January 2008, ‘Food: an analysis of the issues’; with the final report published July 2008, ‘Food Matters Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century.

[3] ‘Food Security and the UK: An Evidence and Analysis Paper’, Defra 2006; ‘Ensuring the UK’s food security in a changing world’, Defra 2008.

[4] ‘An inconvenient truth about food – Neither secure nor resilient’, Soil Association 2008. Background research by the Centre for Food Policy, City University. ‘Rethinking Britain’s Food Security, 2008. (available online: http://www.soilassociation.org/foodsecurity)

[5] In 1900, around 40% of the UK’s population was employed in agriculture, by World War Two that had dropped to 15%. Today less than 2% of the population works in farming. When Cuba’s supplies of oil and agrochemicals ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some 15-24% of the population had to be deployed in food production to achieve food security.

[6] Globally, agriculture is the largest source of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which is 310 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The main source of nitrous oxide is from artificial fertilisers. To make 1 tonne of Nitrogen fertiliser requires 1 tonne of oil and 108 tonnes of water – in the process giving off over 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases. Emissions from the manufacture and delivery of nitrogen fertilisers account for an additional 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and 1.1% of the UK’s total greenhouse emissions.

[7] According to Defra, the UK is currently 60% self-sufficient for all food stuffs consumed in the UK, with 40% imported (other government data gives a UK self-sufficiency figure of 49%). That overall figure hides much larger gaps, such as 90% of all fruit consumed in the UK being imported.

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