The UK has imported food for well over a thousand years. During the industrial revolution, we lost self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs and have never regained it.
We have always been able to buy food from elsewhere and the global food market has become so efficient that the proportion of UK average income spent on food has fallen from 33% in 1957 to 15% in 2006. If food is cheap, reliable, safe and globally abundant, why should the UK worry about local production?
In my view, there are three main reasons why we should not assume that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.
Firstly, demand for food globally is set to increase by at least 50% by mid-century, and many sources say by much more. This is due to population increase and growing affluence in developing countries, particularly in China and India, leading to more animal protein in the diet. Global agricultural production will struggle to meet this rising demand in the face of climate change, competition for land and water, and the need to conserve biodiversity. We should make the best use of the UK’s productive capacity in order to minimise our impact on the farming systems of countries that have fewer natural advantages.
Secondly, declining reserves of agricultural commodities and rapid changes in world prices introduce uncertainty into global markets. Maintaining optimal levels of home production offers the UK a baseline of food that is secure and safe, and helps us to trade effectively for the remainder.
Finally, we are increasingly aware of the other benefits that UK agriculture and land use deliver: clean air, clean water, flood control, biological and landscape diversity and the basis for a multi-billion pound tourist industry. Currently farmers do not get direct payments for providing these services, although their importance is recognised via income from the Common Agricultural Policy.
As the UK population advances towards 70 million by 2031 as predicted by the Office for National Statistics, and the impacts of climate change intensify, we will need a financially viable and environmentally aware farming industry more than ever. If we take action now, we can help this process by promoting the excellence of our own agricultural produce and by encouraging best practice in farming to minimise pollution, maintain natural capital and enhance the environment.
The challenges are to maintain appropriate investment in training new farmers and in providing the industry with the best of modern technology so that the various interrelated roles of farming in the UK can be delivered effectively. A failure to do so will, in my view, expose the country to unnecessary risks in terms of reliability and safety of food and is likely to accelerate the inevitable rise in food prices as global demand begins to outstrip supply.
About Professor Chris Pollock
Chris Pollock has been involved in agriculture and land use policy for many years and has recently completed a one-year post as Chief Scientific Advisor to the First Minister in Wales. Director of the Institute of Grassland and Environment Research from 1993-2007, he is currently an Honorary Professor at Aberystwyth University, chair of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, and a member of BBSRC Council. Chris is a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society and of the Institute of Biology, a winner of the British Grassland Society Award and was made a CBE in 2002 for services to the environment.
Professor Chris Pollock
Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences