Over 6000 years ago the first farmers started clearing the native wildwood that covered the UK. They grew crops, reared livestock and learned techniques for storing produce so that food could be made available throughout the year. Later they settled permanently in particular areas and with adequate food supplies started to develop other skills; civilisation was born.
Over the following millennia Britain’s farmers shaped the countryside we now see and for centuries agriculture was the principal industry in Great Britain. During the 19th Century industrialisation brought an end to the agrarian society
In world war two farming techniques improved exponentially and continued thereafter and now with modern intensive farming produce a high crop yield. Output was increased through mechanisation, improved stock and plant breeding, the greater use of fertiliser and pesticides and a move away from more extensive forms of production.
Food security exists when the population has ready access to safe and sufficient food such that a normal healthy life can be maintained. It is a measure of the success of agriculture that over the past five decades we have been able to take food security for granted.
However around the turn of the millennium the worldwide balance between supply and demand shifted. A series of poorer harvests coincided with increased demand for foodstuffs such that stocks declined and by 2007 the price of many agricultural commodities doubled. Subsequent to 2007 we have seen steady increases in food prices and low priced food in the supermarkets, which we once took for, granted is no more.
There have been propositions that agricultural self-sufficiency is a misleading concept in relation to food security and that the UK can import the foodstuffs it requires.
However this argument is dangerous on three counts:
Firstly; we cannot be certain that supplies will exist elsewhere in the world. Climate change is already disrupting production systems and there are plenty of examples from history to concern us – the most striking being the Great Famine. In 1315 a marked change to the climate throughout the whole of Northern Europe brought seven years of poor harvests and led to widespread famine – 10% of the population died from starvation and malnutrition. This is not likely today but we may see dramatic increases in food supplies if climate change conspires against us.
Secondly; even if plentiful supplies do exist elsewhere in the world, it is by no means certain that we will be able to obtain them. This is simply a matter of logistics – it is not possible to move large quantities of food across continents; not only does the infrastructure to do so not exist, but it can easily be disrupted by circumstances beyond our control.
Thirdly; the world’s population is growing alarmingly fast and expected to reach 9 billion people within 30 years.
Food security is a function of self-sufficiency. The higher a country’s self sufficiency, the lower the likelihood that its food security will be compromised. All of which argues for strong domestic production and reinforces the importance of agriculture to the UK which means we need protection of the green belt.
However this is not just a question of supply but also of quality.
Beyond food security there is the question of food quality which is a subjective measure of consumer preference.
Nearly all food in the UK is produced under quality assurance schemes that guarantee production, environmental and welfare standards. Assurance schemes monitor and independently verify farmers’ systems as well as providing full traceability.
There is also consumer preference in our supermarkets much of the food is months even years old and preserved by chemicals and preservatives. It often travels across dozens of continents before it arrives here in the UK. Apart from traceability concerns many people prefer the taste and quality home grown organic food from local farms.
Farming is a difficult business often with long hours and low profit margins. Volume is essential in order to cover fixed costs and operate a viable business. Volume is also critical to insure against losses and poor yield due to weather such as we saw in 2012 with the very wet summer. Losses in farming operations are driving more farmers to sell off land for housing and other developments which in turn leads to less and less viability in the industry.
Green belt farming also has benefits in visual amenity and biodiversity. The impacts on biodiversity are mixed and intensive farming is often poor for wildlife. However on other occasions farming can enhance and support biodiversity, particularly organic farming practices, set asides and winter crop seed from farming operations. Nor is green belt agriculture a substitute or alternative for wild habitats. The two are incompatible although as above in some cases they do complement.
It is imperative for our future security, health and wellbeing that we have a robust agricultural industry of sufficient capacity for our future needs particularly as our population is rapidly expanding to 70 million or beyond.