A return to The Good Life

Climate change, terrorism and the rising costs of imported produce mean that Britain faces serious threats to its food security. Now the Soil Association is campaigning for more of us to start growing our own. Ian Johnston reports
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A campaign to enlist millions of Britain's gardeners in a modern-day "dig for victory" campaign is to be launched this autumn by the Soil Association.

The organisation wants to persuade the public to start growing their own vegetables and fruit, as well as raising animals where possible, because of fears that rising food and energy prices, coupled with a major terrorist attack or climate change event, could seriously threaten Britain's food supply.

With fewer than 1 per cent of the population working in agriculture – one of the lowest levels in the world – Britons are among the least capable of feeding themselves, and there is growing concern at an over-reliance on food imports.

Just over 60 per cent of the food consumed by Britons is produced domestically, but overall self-sufficiency has dropped by 21 per cent since 1995 with imports rising over the same period. More than 90 per cent of fruit eaten here is imported, compared with 40 per cent in France, and about 50 per cent of our vegetables come from overseas.

With energy and food price rises expected to be a continuing trend, together with the growing impact of climate change on crops – 57 per cent of England's best farmland is below sea level – Britain's food chain is vulnerable to severe disruption, experts warn.

And Britons must not rely on international trade and imports, they argue. UN environment experts warn that the world's main grain-belts – in the US, Ukraine and Australia – could be devastated by heatwaves and drought. On top of that, a terrorist attack on a major oil or gas pipeline could jeopardise supplies of fuel and bring Britain's "just-in-time" food delivery system grinding to a halt.

The Soil Association, exasperated by the Government's inaction, will issue a direct appeal to the public to join a mass self-sufficiency movement and start to relearn lost agricultural skills.

The mobilisation of Britain's gardeners will be the theme of a keynote speech in October by the former Gardeners' World presenter Monty Don, the association's new president. He is currently convalescing after suffering a stroke. The Soil Association wants to get every child to visit a working organic farm by the time they are 11 as part of an effort to get people to value agriculture more highly.

It is to set up an organic agriculture apprenticeship scheme, involving farms across the country, and plans to expand a series of master classes in food production and preparation, including DIY butchery, that proved to be a runaway success.

Patrick Holden, the association's director, said: "There is such urgency about this. How are we going to create the conditions where this nation and its politicians wake up to the urgency of change? There's a lot at stake. If we act now, it needn't be an emergency. It's all about forward planning."

It was vital, he said, to demystify agriculture. "There is this perception out there that farmers have huge knowledge and you couldn't possibly do it. But the truth is the principles [of gardening] are just scaled up in agriculture. We need to affirm that Britain's citizens do have the ability to grow their own food."

Mr Holden said the hauliers' protest in 2000, when refineries were blockaded, showed how vulnerable Britain's food supply system was to fuel shortages. Some supermarkets were forced to introduce rationing as lorries were unable to make deliveries, and panic-buying emptied shelves.

"If you cut off the just-in-time food system for any period longer than a few days, you could imagine hungry people marching west down the Thames. It's important to have resilience built into our food system," he said.

"The impulse to form the Soil Association came just after the Second World War. The thinking was shaped out of the necessity for self-sufficiency. In a sense, the Soil Association's entire history has been a preparation for this 21st-century food crisis, which – if we prepare for – we can avert, but if we don't could be really serious."

Until recently the Government's official line was that the UK was a trading nation, selling its skills in sectors such as the financial industry and using the income to buy food.

However, last month, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Hilary Benn, signalled a rethink, saying "recent food price rises across the world have shone a light on the challenges all countries face in ensuring food supplies at reasonable prices", and asking for opinions on the issue.

But Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, is sceptical of the Government's stance. "At the moment, what's happening is home production is dropping very fast indeed. One of the weaknesses of New Labour is that it has had a love affair with neo-liberalism and markets. It is short-sighted and risky to allow a continued collapse in home-grown production. Until 10 days ago, the position of the Government was wrong. There's not been a U-turn, but they have parked up at the side of the motorway and said: 'What do you think?'"

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "Obviously, there are a lot of positives to growing your own food and we certainly wouldn't discourage people from doing so. That's why local authorities are required to provide allotments, provided there is enough demand. On the other hand, there is no policy to increase the amount of food people are producing themselves."

The rise and rise of the DIY butcher

Butcher Jamie Willows is insistent: "With a pig, you can eat everything but the oink." Jamie is butchery manager at Jimmy's Farm, near Ipswich, featured in the BBC series, and he teaches people how to butcher their own meat.

Jamie, 27, conducts popular Soil Association butchery masterclasses as well as his own demonstrations. "People come here so they can buy a whole or half an animal and cut it up themselves. It's a mix of people, some country types, some city folk, people with a smallholding or thinking of getting a smallholding... We pride ourselves on traditional methods and keeping old skills alive. I think people are becoming aware of where meat comes from... It's going back to the old-fashioned ways and using every part of the animal," he said.

Butchery is one of about 50 masterclasses run by the Soil Association this year. Others include apple-pressing and cider-making, butter, jam and cheese-making, farming skills such as chicken, sheep and bee-keeping courses, as well as fruit and vegetable growing.

Ian Johnston

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