Feed the world

Climate change is posing a serious threat to our food supply. CIWEM executive director, Nick Reeves, calls for a revolution in farming and consumer attitudes

Humans are not the sole point and purpose of the planet. All around there are signs that our whole way of life is passing into history. If we are to face this reality, we will have to re-engage with the non-human world and challenge the myth of human centrality. The root cause of the emerging food crisis has been a failure to re-engage.

For years, we rejoiced and wallowed in food surpluses that showed a complete disregard for what we eat, how food is produced and the cost to the environment.

In 2008 the number of undernourished people rose to just under a billion with a further 750 million at risk. The starving millions are testament to our failings.

When, almost two years ago, the price of staples such as rice soared beyond the means of many people in the developing countries, it threatened to bring down governments. We, in the developed world, were warned that this was the mother and father of wake-up calls and the end of cheap food. If we failed to do something about global food security, we were told, we'd face dire consequences. But, nothing much happened, until now. Last August the UK Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, launched a food security assessment document that will
herald a food strategy in due course. Among other things, the strategy should mark the end of the corrosive supermarket culture of 'bogof' (buy-one-get-one-free) and reinvent the way we feel about food, and the water required to produce it.

Defra's Food Security Assessment is pressing for a big conversation that, in addition to climate change, gives us something else to worry about, but puts sustainability into context. Unless the promised strategy promotes a rights-based approach to food across the world it will be less than credible. Meantime, we are still profligate with food and water. And although we in the UK produce 61% of the food we eat, we waste around 30%. Given that 18% of greenhouse gases (GHGs) relates to the food we produce and consume, the scandal is clear. So a new public attitude to food is long overdue.

Although we can be more self-sufficient and less wasteful, the question is not just about how secure is our food supply, but will all our efforts be undermined by a failure to tackle population growth and increasing levels of consumption? Is someone doing the sums? But there are other questions, too, which divide the political parties.

Do we feed ourselves or do we allow others to do so? Do we need farmers or are we always going to be rich enough to buy on the open markets? Is the priority to keep food cheap or to lower its carbon footprint and the cost of diet related healthcare? Are consumers modern gods, or should they have their choices restricted?

Sustainable course
These are vexed questions. But the Government seems to think that food supply can be managed by trading gains on some scores for losses on others. I don't. The only future for the planet is to put food systems on a sustainable course. It's sustainability or bust. But if we are to achieve it, a revolution is required. It will need soil conservation, setting aside land for food rather than houses, motorways and airports. Also, a national stock take of land will be necessary to ensure that we are getting the most of what we have. We will need to eat differently, too,
accepting less choice.

Over the past 20 years, UK food production has declined and despite an upsurge in interest in allotment gardening and allotment plots, fewer of us grow for home consumption. But neoliberals aren't worried. In the political salons of Westminster and in the Treasury, it's common to hear the view that Britain is rich and can buy
most of what we need, and should concentrate on producing only what can be grown, processed and sold efficiently.

Efficiency is everything and the subtext is that farmers are troublesome and expensive. They cost the taxpayer big money, not least in bailouts; think BSE and foot and mouth. So some see this as an opportunity for our near neighbours to feed us, and not just in the EU but particularly Africa. But they ignore the fundamentals coming our way: climate change, water scarcity, land pressures, a growing population, uncertainties over energy, the loss of soil fertility and biodiversity and urbanisation on an unprecedented scale.

Defra's UK Food Security Assessment makes all of the questions about our relationship with food more urgent. In setting out its assessment of the challenges and risks, it crams into one basket every hazard possible, from animal disease to water scarcity to pesticides. Here's a document that nevertheless raises a troubling issue about which we are complacent at our peril.

The report's summary includes an assessment of our current and future positions on a number of issues. Global fish stocks are already flashing red and water productivity is heading the same way. Deterioration is forecast in the amount of food stocked in retailers' warehouses and in the crucial areas of carbon emissions, soil productivity, the efficacy of intensive fertilisers and the governance of fresh water stocks.

On the upside, improvement is predicted in the EU's production capability and Britain's share of it. We are likely to see improved business planning and profitability in large food manufacturers and a blossoming of consumer confidence. But this is a time for a radical transformation in how we produce and respect food. We will have to join the rest of the world in spending more on what we eat. Defra's report highlights the gravity of the situation and can rightly claim that it is covering all the issues. But a little leadership would be good, too, helping us to decide which risks require action now.

A revival of UK food production will be impossible without unpicking policies and laws that are hostile to change. And Hilary Benn's inclusion of a role for genetic modification (GM) cannot be an option with no proof that it can combat climate change. It is also inconsistent with the Government's previous announcement to future-proof farming. Last year UK ministers signed up to a UN-sponsored agriculture assessment which found little potential for GM crops and recommended a move to small-scale, diverse, ecological farming based on local food needs. The rush to GM will take us down a culdesac. We need the Government to take real action to reduce the UK food industry's global impacts and to secure planet-friendly farming and fair food supplies.

nick@ciwem.org

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