As the world becomes more and more unstable and the developing world seeks to feed huge numbers of extra mouths and at a higher standard of nutrition, the question of national food security is once again on the agenda. How is Britain placed?
In 2008 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced a report which examined the question in depth.
Being a product of NuLabour, the report predictably concluded that Britain should not try to be self-sufficient but throw in her lot wholeheartedly with the EU and be terribly concerned about the Third World whilst worshipping at the altar of the market and green politics, for example:
“UK production is of course crucial to our food supply, but it is not on its own sufficient for UK food security. We should encourage a sufficient volume of domestic production for the food supply chain as a whole, and that means continuing to encourage a market-driven, efficient and environmentally sustainable farming sector producing what consumers want”. (DEFRA Para 4.22)
Nonetheless, the report produced a good deal of interesting analysis which suggested Britain might be able to pinch feed itself at a pinch:
“Crude calculations suggest that UK agricultural land could provide more than enough food from arable production in terms of our daily calorific requirements, in theory making the UK self-sufficient”. (DEFRA report para 4.14).
This is important because food security is along with energy security the most certain guarantee of a country’s sovereignty. Moreover, energy security is bound up with food security, viz:
“As a measure of domestic food security, self-sufficiency does not cover the processing and distribution of food, it does not allow for the imported energy on which domestic agriculture is directly and indirectly reliant, and it does not take account of the resilience of the supply chain.” (DEFRA report Para 4.15)
How much food does the UK currently produce? The DEFRA report says:
“Currently the UK is 60% self-sufficient in all foods and over 74% self-sufficient in foods that can be produced in this country” (Para 4.12).
“self-sufficiency ranges from around 10% for fresh fruit to around 100% for cereals” (Para 4.15).
60% is high in the modern period. Britain was last self-sufficient in food in the first half of the 19th century. With the Empire and a commitment to free trade, Britain’s self-sufficiency had dropped to 40% by 1914 and dropped to nearer 30% in the 1930s (DEFRA Para 4.12 figure 1). This had grave consequences in the two world wars when Britain was forced to introduce rationing and immense amounts of shipping and lives were lost as food was shipped to Britain from abroad and fell to the U-Boat.
Despite rationing and government initiatives such as dig for victory by the time the war ended in 1945 Britain was still only producing 75% of the food consumed here (Dig for Victory section). Moreover, that was only 75% of a diet restricted in quantity and variety.
The experience of two world wars persuaded British governments that food security was important. By the 1980s Britain produced nearer 70% of her food, partly as a result of the protectionist measures such as the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, although it is worth noting that the EU restricts as well as encourages. For example, Britain could be more than self-sufficient in dairy products , but is restricted by the EU to producing even enough to meet her own needs viz:
“a phased liberalisation of EU milk production – due to come into full force in 2015 – should help the UK’s dairy farmers. Germany, for example, is allowed under the EU quota system to produce some 25bn litres of milk a year – twice what the UK is currently producing”.
If Britain left the EU she could put in place her own protectionist policies and produce as much as she wanted of a product for the home market.
The British population was 35 million in 1900 and is an estimated 63 million today. The fact that Britain has been able to massively increase the proportion of home produced food since 1900 despite the population rising by approximately 80% suggests that Britain is capable of producing far more food than it does. What has prevented it doing so has been political decisions such as Britain membership of the EU and the conversion of all major British Parties to an unthinking belief in free markets and free trade. It is reasonable to assume that a further significant increase in UK food production could occur with the right protectionist measures and the ever increasing yields of crops and products from animals due to improvements in plant varieties and husbandry plus the potential of genetically modified (GM) foods.
There could also be a change in land use which would increase food production overall. Land which is now marginal could be brought back into use and there could be a shift to more arable farming. Much of the food now heavily imported, most notably fruit, could be produced at home if was worth the trouble of producing,. Food would become more seasonal – no bad thing – and some foods which cannot be grown here – citrus fruits, bananas and so n – might become rare, but these could be compensated for by such measures as the re-introduction of orchards for the production of the vast variety of apples, plums and pairs which will grow here.
In 2013 the President of the National Farmers Union Peter Kendall said:
“Right across the board farmers have a fantastic natural capacity to produce more British food, given the right market signals and the confidence to invest. We have the right technologies to produce more from less, with precision farming helping to target fertiliser and crop protection products within centimetres.
“Laser technology can even pinpoint an individual weed, improving accuracy and efficiency. Crops grown under cover help to lengthen the season for our British fruits.
“But there is more to do to empower our farmers to enable them to make the most of our natural resources and feed our growing nation”
Then there are the UK food exports to toss into the equation. How much food does the UK export? The total value of UK food and drink exports in 2013 was £18.9 billion.
Answering the question in the title – perhaps, if we had to, we could.