Christmas is traditionally a time of celebrating via food. GFS Champion Tim Benton explores the question of whether we should be more self-sufficient in producing it.

Tim Benton

One of the questions asked in Westminster is “should the UK be more self-sufficient in food production?” According to government (PDF) data about 62% of our food is produced in Great Britain.

Last August, 62% of the way through the year, the National Farmers’ Union had a Back British Farming campaign pointing out that were there no international trade our “larder would be bare” from August onwards – definitely a problem for the Christmas feast then  – and so growing more food locally would be benefit  our food security by increasing self-sufficiency.

Is this really the case?

Look closely to see where this shopping bag was made. Image: Gwyn Fisher on FlickrLook closely to see where this shopping bag was made. Image: Gwyn Fisher on Flickr

Supply and demand

Self-sufficiency can be calculated in different ways.  Using farm-gate values of total production we are 53% (PDF). If we subtract exports we are 62%, and for consumption of food that we produce locally 78% (PDF). The difference between the first two highlights the difference between what we produce and what we use.

For example, we produce about (PDF) 781kT of pork, export about 183kT and import about 729kT. In the case of pig, we export mainly high value premium products, and import cheaper meat: the imports and exports are not exactly the same product. So changing our habits and thus our import-export balance is one way of increasing self-sufficiency.

Local Government Minister Don Foster supports local produce with Richard Cook  in Brighton farmers’ market. Image: Department for Communities and  Local Government on FlickrLocal Government Minister Don Foster supports local produce with Richard Cook in Brighton farmers’ market.
Image: Department for Communities and Local Government on Flickr

Self-sufficiency implies growing more of what we eat. How far can this go? If you tot up all the countries that supply us, we import from most (about 88%) of the world’s nations. But 90% of our imported food comes from 24 nations – and our closest neighbours too.

Clearly, we cannot be 100% self-sufficient: we can never grow coffee and cocoa, and can we imagine living in a world without both? I can’t!

But is being more self-sufficient necessarily a “good thing”? I think the answer to that is “it depends”.

The demands of supply

If the international food market is working well, we should perhaps concentrate on growing and selling products we grow really well given our soils and climate, exploiting our ‘comparative advantages’.  What we don’t grow, we can then buy in. Pretty much, this is what currently happens – over 60% of all global production is traded worldwide, much from areas specialising in growing lots of a few things.

But this specialism brings risks. Firstly, complex international supply chains pose a challenge for food safety and authenticity, and may not be resilient to interruptions over competition for resources, conflict, weather or disease.  For example, if our supply of soy, the largest traded global commodity, was interrupted it would affect many foods (soy is a generic ingredient in most supermarket processed foods) as well as livestock feed, driving up meat, eggs and dairy prices.

Realistic alternatives

So, should we have a plan B? Yes, within reason.

In a world where extreme weather is becoming appreciably common, farmers growing fewer products risk “putting all their eggs in one basket”. Recent research indicates that farmers growing a greater diversity of products spread their risks and reduce income variance. This bet-hedging does come at some cost to overall income, although that can, potentially, be offset by better forecasting and playing the markets.

Diversified landscapes are also likely to be better at delivering a range of ecosystem services. In addition, it is often easier to manage waste (such as manure) because what enterprise sees as waste another may see as a resource – they therefore may be both economically resilient and more sustainable. The growth of consumer demand for local food is also a potent diversifier at local or regional level, and short supply chains are seen as more trustworthy. Thus, there are a range of arguments for promoting resilience in diversity at the local level.

Thanet Earth under  construction in Kent, November 2008. Image: Simon Moores on FlickrThanet Earth under construction in Kent, November 2008.
Image: Simon Moores on Flickr

At the national level, how much should we diversify to ensure a minimum local supply of important goods if things “go wrong”?  The four Heathrow Terminal 5-sized greenhouses at Thanet Earth produce about 225M tomatoes (12% of UK production), 16M peppers (11%) and 13M cucumbers a year (8%), showing that modern technology can produce high yields, commercially, on small land areas.

Similarly, Stockbridge Technology Centre has a research facility of a “super-insulated blockhouse” where plants are grown under LEDs with a very low carbon footprint: such agriculture has potential for brownfield sites. And interest in urban and vertical farming systems have also the potential for many local gains: system resilience, local food production, and bringing greater respect for food as people reconnect to production and naturally reduce waste.

End game

Pragmatically, we can’t aspire to self-sufficiency because of the range of goods we want and because the importance of our exports will likely grow as other production areas get hit by climate change more than we are likely to – powering the economics of producing what we are best at.

Equally, concentrating on producing too few products and relying on the market always to supply the rest is increasingly looking risky.

There are multiple benefits for encouraging diverse production systems and diverse products.  Should we leave the market to shape the mix, or would it be sensible to take a more strategic view of land use?  That can of worms I’ll leave for today…

Hope y’all have a great Christmas! As a Farmer Christmas would say “Hoe, Hoe Hoe!” And you can send me a present by posting your thoughts in the comments box below!

Turkey and cranberries are certainly not indigenous to the UK.  But it’s Christmas… enjoy! Image: Toby Bradbury on FlickrTurkey, potatoes and cranberries are certainly not indigenous to the UK. But it’s Christmas… enjoy! Image: Toby Bradbury on Flickr

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About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.

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