Monday, 20 June 2011

Future food in doubt

Britain’s future food security remains under threat after a new report failed to recommend new research or consider how more of the nation’s land can be used for food production. 

So says Lancashire scientist Charles Clutterbuck. He’s concerned that Britain’s reliance on imports for 40% of its food will - with emerging economies such as China and India seeking to lease land abroad - cause problems here. [*]

Global Food Security [GFS] was established when UK research councils, government departments and other public bodies agreed to combine their activities. It was a response to an earlier parliamentary committee examining whether the UK food system could double production over the next four decades.

GFS was going to ensure research activities designed to boost food and agricultural production were now going to be properly coordinated. Clutterbuck, who in his role as the special advisor to the parliamentary committee had been left amazed that Tesco hadn’t considered how they might source food in 20 years time, was delighted. Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Sainsbury’s dominate the UK grocery market with over 75% of sales combined.  

One of the Big Four that dominate the UK Grocery Market

One year on he’s unimpressed. Firstly, Imperial College in London is closing their plant science department. This follows massive cuts last year at the vegetable centre at Wellesbourne, Warwickshire where research will now focus on a few key crops such as the lettuce, brassica, carrot and onion.

Britain first began closing its research centres during the 1980s, when amongst those that disappeared were ones covering fruit, grass and plant breeding. According to Clutterbuck, an agricultural scientist for four decades, this broke the link with farmers that helped ensure any research had a final practical implementation.

With the GFS report making no case for their re-opening Clutterbuck is convinced that: “Britain’s 65% drop in vegetable and fruit production over the last quarter of a century will accelerate. If we hope to feed ourselves in the future it’s just not good enough.”

Such conservatism Clutterbuck argues is compounded in the report’s belief that Britain can’t use more of its land. The Nelson resident contends that he has seen for himself in recent years a switch in land use away from agriculture towards recreational hobbies such as horse riding. A regular moorland visitor he knows that in France and Germany the land would be used for food production. He’d also like to see land used for pheasant shooting reconverted back into “forest with trees that grow edibles such as fruit.”

He’s aware the GFS plan envisages scientific advances will increase productivity per hectare but he doesn’t believe science always “produces what we hope as it’s not a straight line, therefore we should utilise what we’ve already got as a precaution.” 

He’s not too confident that will prove to be the case under the current government and he’s critical of its environmental spokesperson Caroline Spelman for her comments that it should be illegal for major food-growing countries to halt food exports during times of national crisis. This was a reference to Russia and the Ukraine, both of whom temporarily halted wheat exports last year to retain supplies during an unprecedented heat wave at home. This followed, after food commodity prices, doubled, 40 countries food export bans in 2008

“Telling Vladimir Putin he should let his own people starve to give people here cheap food isn’t a serious option and what we need on this issue is some serious thinking to ensure Britain moves beyond growing just 60% of the food we consume” says Clutterbuck.

A view National Farmers Union President Peter Kendall mirrored when he said “A country short of food trying to protect its own people’s supplies by banning grain exports is nothing compared to rich countries allowing their agriculture to decline and then expecting the rest of the world to feed them."

Not that Charlie, an active member of the trade union Unite, believes the NFU has the policies to revive agriculture and food production.

For that he’s convinced it’s a matter of ensuring we replace an ageing farming population with younger people. To do so they will need “proper training and a decent income either as farmers or workers” and that’s why “it’s so daft for the Government to be closing down the Agricultural Wages Board at a time when we need to be making the case that better paid workers are key to ensuring that Britain doesn’t in the future find itself going hungry and can also feed others across the world. ”

* This has, of course, caused problems within the host nations - in 2009 in Madagascar over 100 people were killed during protests against the signing of a 99-year lease to 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land to South Korean firm Daewoo.

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