16th June 2010

Can Britain Feed Itself?


During 2007 and 2008 the world experienced a global food crisis. Possibly the first genuinely global food crisis ever. There were riots in over 30 countries. The UN called emergency summits and meetings. India stopped exporting all rice except Basmati (a high value export). The price of staple commodity crops doubled, some much-more-than-doubled.

In the UK, this prompted the government to seriously think about food and food policy for the first time in fifty years, and the Cabinet Office’s Strategy Unit produced a report entitled Food Matters: Towards a strategy for the 21st century.

This was serious stuff, with the brightest policy brains in the country deciding for the first time in over a generation that “leave it to the markets” might not be good enough when it comes to making sure we have enough to eat. Suddenly food, and therefore farming, became an issue of national security once again. Chatham House soon produced their own report on food, and that was followed not long after by a Royal Society review into the science that informs food policy and the future of farming.

Leading on from the Strategy Unit’s contribution, the government began work on a new food strategy called Food 2030, which Defra itself describes as “the first of its kind in over 50 years”. At the same time, the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, who is in charge of the government’s Foresight Programme, has made global food supply his primary concern, talking of “A Perfect Storm” of supply and demand issues which are due to severely effect the golbal food system by 2030, and starting foresight projects on Global Food and Farming as well as Land Use Futures.

The “Perfect Storm” is being driven on the demand side by a growing population, which is increasingly urban, and which is becoming more prosperous and so is eating more calories per head with a greater proportion of meat and dairy (which, using ‘conventional’ farming methods, require a higher level of inputs to produce the same amount of calories). On the supply side, shortages in energy, water and the best land will be exascerbated by climate change in inherently unpredictable ways.

For fifty years we have applied chemical and industrial technologies to agriculture, complemented by global markets and distribution systems, has produced previously undreamt-of amounts of food which has supported a burgeoning population and massive surpluses. This model no longer seems able to feed us into the future. A consensus has emerged that it must change. The question is how it must change.

In April 2008, the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an UN investigation which had run for two years, agreed its final reports at a plenary session in Johanesburg. That report stated unequivocally that “agroecology” – the application of biological and ecological knowledge in combination with appropriate technologies – along with simple social and economic assistance for the small farmers that still produce the majority of the world’s food, stands by far the best chance of providing for the needs of a growing population in a resource constrained future.

We must harness what nature provides for free through the intelligent application of biological and ecological science, rather than relying on attempts to escape nature’s limits through the brutal application of chemistry and the physical manipulation of the genome.

As Colin Tudge, among others, has written, simple arithmetic shows that Britain can undoubtedly feed itself, and common sense suggests that it should at least be “self-reliant” – able to feed itself if needs be, but trading fairly to acquire what can’t be grown here.

To achieve this, we need farming to be based on complex polycultures that mimic and enhance ecosystems, rather than grotesque monocultures that destroy them. To support that kind of farming we need radically distributed production and distribution systems that allow for maximum complexity, rather than centralised monstrosities that demand uniformity.

The clever manipulation of geographic data could transform what is possible, and it is incredibly exciting to be involved in the Geovation challenge and to be embarking on a quest to find ingenious ways to harness the data we already have to create tools for our collective planning of a food and farming system that will be worthy of the coming “Age of Biology.”

Sam Henderson, Agrarian Renaissance

See the GeoVation challenge