Leading article: A glorious revolution

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The Independent Online

The politics of food is changing. Most of us are used to abundance when it comes to food, spoilt for choice in supermarkets. Much of our current debate about food is about excess – obesity in people, waste in the home.

That is going to change. Defra, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will announce tomorrow that Britain is to play its part in fulfilling UN goals to increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050 in order to feed a growing world population. It is a large ambition, which will mean changing our mindset about how food is produced and consumed.

This paper supports the Government's objectives. There is a good case for Britain to do more to feed itself. We produce only about 60 per cent of our food, a reduction from 74 per cent less than two decades ago. By increasing our self-sufficiency, we can diminish the environmental impact of our eating habits. Reducing food miles helps keep down carbon emissions.

What is more, eating locally produced food sustains communities dependent on farming which have been badly battered by a succession of disease scares and falling prices. As for growing our own food, which this paper has supported through our extraordinarily successful Let Children Grow campaign, it is good for us, individually and collectively. The participants in this week's National Allotment week can take pride that they are not only reducing their own food bills but helping to diminish the nation's food deficit. During a recession it feels right to produce food for ourselves.

But however doughty gardeners and smallholders are, the bulk of Britain's food must come from farmers. Labour MPs are predominantly drawn from urban constituencies, and agricultural concerns have not loomed large in government during the past 12 years. But they should. Britain's pig farmers have gone through an extraordinarily difficult couple of years. Dairy farming is in crisis now that it costs more to produce a pint of milk than farmers actually get for it. As a report by Chatham House on food security pointed out recently, 63 per cent of farmers are unable to make decent profit returns on their farms.

The plight of farmers has much to do with the dominance of the big supermarkets on food production. Last week's Government-sponsored report on the dealings between big retailers and their producers revealed an extraordinarily one-sided relationship, with supermarkets routinely squeezing farmers in order to reduce prices. Most of the big retailers – though not Marks & Spencer and Waitrose – vigorously objected to the report's recommendation for an ombudsman to monitor abuses. The least ministers can do is to ensure this happens. Meanwhile, the rest of us can support British farmers through our shopping habits. That need not be at the expense of farmers in the developing world: we will always have to buy products that cannot be grown here – Britain won't be producing coffee and bananas any time soon – but there is no good reason why supermarkets should sell onions and herbs from other continents.

But the great question about increasing food production, as our report today makes clear, is whether it has to be at the expense of the environment. Organic farming is more extensive and lower-yielding than the conventional sort. But there is no straight trade-off between food production and respect for the environment. Much depends on what we eat. We don't have to eat as much meat as we do; reducing consumption could change patterns of land use. We could eat more vegetables and fruit; and here we fall scandalously short of self-sufficiency. Britain is one of the best places on earth for apple-growing, but orchards have reduced by a third in a decade; only one in three apples we eat is grown here. Only 10 per cent of all fruit sold in Britain is grown here. The Government can, through the intelligent use of subsidy and regulation, ensure that bigger yields are not produced by ripping up hedgerows and the use of the most damaging pesticides.

Any debate about increased production will touch on genetic modification. That debate must distinguish between the different uses to which this technology can be put: it is one thing to produce GM grain that is drought resistant; quite another to produce "suicide seeds", or crops that cannot self-reproduce.

We waste about 30 per cent of the food we buy. By shopping and cooking better, we can reduce this scandalous waste and by doing so, diminish our food deficit. Increasing food production is a challenge, but with intelligence and will, it can be done, and in a good way.

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