The Big Question: Is the UK running out of food - and what can we do about it?

Why are we asking this question now?

We must massively raise production if we are to avoid going hungry in the future, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says in its Food Security Assessment. The document is part of a wide-ranging Whitehall response to last year’s Cabinet Office report Food Matters, which assessed all aspects of food, including health, safety, the economy and environment.

Aren’t shops crammed with food?

Yes, but there are several reasons why the Government is concerned that will not be so in coming decades. Climate change, diminishing energy sources, a soaring global population and depleted fish stocks all mean that we can no longer be complacent about our ability to feed ourselves. In July, the Government's Sustainable Development Commission warned that the current food system was failing because it emitted too much greenhouse gas and paid little attention to soil quality and water use. looking ahead 10 years in its food security assessment, Defra said the situation was likely to be good for the diversity of the UK’s food supply, energy use, ability of the poor to buy food and control of foodborne disease. But it said the situation was either uncertain or somewhat unfavourable for global per capita food output and very unfavourable for global land use. The greatest concern was over fish stocks and water scarcity.

How much do we need to raise production?

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates world food supplies need to rise by 40 per cent by 2030, and by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed a forecasted global population of 9bn in 2050. The Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has not set a target for raising British production, but his department says Britain will “play a full part” in hitting the UN’s 2050 target.

So the UK will become more self-sufficient?

Not necessarily. Before the industrial revolution in the 18th Century, we produced almost everything we eat. Presently we are 61 per cent self-sufficient. This is lower than a decade ago, but higher than the all-time low of 30 per cent in the 1930s, when the country relied heavily on imports from the Empire. The Government says we need to grow more, but has so far not committed itself to reducing imports. Mr Benn pointed out yesterday that becoming wholly self-sufficient could be dangerous if a crop or animal disease were to sweep through the UK. Nonetheless, the implication of the UK’s new approach is that we should raise the proportion of domestic production.

How will we do that?

The Government says we need to innovate, eat a healthier diet and waste less. On production,Defra points to work by scientists at East Malling Research in Kent, who have cut water used to grow a tonne of strawberries from 70 tonnes to 10 tonnes, while also improving taste and increasing Vitamin C and antioxidants. In the search for greater yields, the Government may back the commercial growing of GM crops here. On health, our diet is inefficient because we eat too much red meat, too little fish and too few fruit and vegetables - 2.7 portions a day against a Government recommendation of five. Wrap, the Government’s anti-waste campaign, estimates that households waste 30 per cent of the food they buy, at a cost to a family of four of £610 a year. Defra will give us a better idea of what ministers are planning this in a new Food Strategy this Autumn after considering responses to its Food Security Assessment.

What about the environment?

Naturalists and conservationists are concerned about the impact of raising production on the environment. Intensive agriculture, with its large fields and heavy use of insect-unfriendly pesticides, has uprooted most of our hedgerows and destroyed half our farmland birds since the end of the Second World War. Many species of wild flowers have been left on the brink of extinction because of the loss of field edges and meadows. Defra admits the big challenge is raising production sustainably.

Can’t we just import more food?

The Government says we cannot shirk the global food challenge. This stance has its foundations in morality and practicality. Britain is currently wealthy enough to import lots of food, but who knows how wealthy we will be in 2050, compared with the emerging populous nations of China, Brazil and India. The impact of climate change on water supplies and harvests and water supplies may be dramatic. Britain is not immune from shocks to the global food system. As a result of soaring oil prices and droughts in Australia and elsewhere, food prices increased by 40 per cent in 2007. When the soaring price of staples such as wheat and rice fed through to the shops, riots flared in Bangladesh, Haiti, Pakistan, Cameroon, and many other developing countries. Food inflation for a typical shopping basket hit 19 per cent in the UK last May. Mr Benn described the 2008 food crisis as a “wake up call.”

Is there enough food now?

Yes, but it is not evenly spread throughout the world. Westerners gorging on energy-rich food are becoming fat. The UNFAO says 1.4bn people are overweight and one billion people are under-nourished. The problem is not that there is not enough food, but that the poor cannot afford it. Increasing British production will ease the strain on global markets, thus lowering the price of food into the reach of millions.

Could we have a healthier, more sustainable system while producing more?

Potentially, yes. Our current production and use of food is hugely wasteful. On health, the Government estimate 70,000 deaths a year in the UK could be prevented if diets followed national guidelines for sugar, salt and fat and we all ate 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Obesity alone costs the NHS £8 billion a year. On sustainability, around a quarter of fresh produce is left to rot in fields, sent to landfill or anaerobic digestion or fed to livestock because it does not meet high cosmetic standards set by supermarkets. Eliminating household food waste could cut production by 30 per cent. On efficiency, the latest research into strawberries shows what can be achieved. New crop breeds and methods should increase yields, but we do not know by how much.

What can customers do?

Shoppers can help make food go further by avoiding over-eating. Planning meals a week in advance, freezing unused ingredients and making meals out of leftovers cuts waste and grocery bills. Growing fruit and vegetables in window boxes, gardens and allotments will help the push for production. The Government wants people to place less store by sell-by dates which are a a guide for stores, not customers. Use-by dates should be followed.

Do we have enough food?

YES

- Supermarkets are stocked with an extraordinary array of domestic and foreign food

- British people over-eat, with average calorie intake exceeding daily guidelines of 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men

- Uneven distribution rather than under-production is the cause of world hunger

NO

- Britain relies too heavily on imports, with almost 40 per cent of our food coming from abroad

- Climate change and water and energy shortages will increase pressure on future production

- Current food output will be outpaced by population growth, with the UN forecasting 9bn people by 2050

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