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What is food security?
Why is food security suddenly such a problem?
Should the UK grow all of its own food?
Is food security just about growing more food?
Does climate change affect food security?

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What is food security?

There are different ways to define food security. What it means is having food on the plate today, and confidence that there will be food on the plate tomorrow, next week, month and in a year.

But food security is about more than just ensuring that there will be food to eat tomorrow. For instance, it’s little use having food tomorrow if it is going to cost a day’s wages to get to, a week’s wages to buy, or if it is spoilt by pests or dangerous pathogens and cannot fulfil basic nutritional needs.

Food security includes:

  • Availability: is there enough to go around?
  • Access: can it be reached efficiently?
  • Affordability: can it be bought at a fair price?
  • Quality: is the food edible?
  • Nutrition: is the food part of a balanced diet?
  • Safety: could it harm health?

Therefore, food security is about having access to affordable, safe and nutritious food, today and tomorrow.

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Why is food security suddenly such a problem?

Human activity is changing the world at a faster pace than ever before. There are more people using more energy and changing the local and global climate on a scale that has never been seen before in the history of human civilisation.

A ‘perfect storm’ of factors have now combined to make food security one of the preeminent challenges facing humankind.

  • Increasing population: 6Bn in 2009, predicted to reach 9Bn by 2050
  • Changing diets: as people become richer they tend to eat a more varied diet, including more meat, which takes more energy to produce
  • Reduced arable land: the drive to produce more biofuels has led to conflicts over what agricultural land should be used for: food or fuel?
  • Transport costs: the relatively high price of oil in recent years has driven up the price of storing and distributing food
  • Climate change: a warmer (or cooler, even) world leads to changes in what crops can be grown where. We can adapt, but fast enough to meet local or global needs?

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Should the UK grow all of its own food?

No. There is a powerful, almost unassailable, argument that total self-sufficiency would make the UK’s food supplies less, not more, secure.

If the UK produced all of its own food, what would happen if there was a poor harvest? Or a new disease emerged? Or if there was a particularly bad year for an established pest? If all the UK’s food was home grown losing a sizeable portion of any staple crop could have a significant inflationary effect on other food prices as demand for them increases.

It would be putting all the UK’s eggs in one basket, literally. If drought or disease attacked crops, or if the foot-and-mouth or blue tongue viruses attacked livestock, it could spell disaster for large swathes of the UK economy.

Therefore, the present system may not be perfect, but producing over half of our own food and importing the rest protects the UK from catastrophic events hitting itself or the other bread baskets of the world. And since we also export food (particularly wheat, lamb, dairy products and breakfast cereals), this helps maintain the trade balance sheet and drives economic development.

Finally, trying to unilaterally pursue food security is not thought to be practicable, sustainable or financially rational because other key inputs, such as energy, animal feed and fertiliser, are sourced globally.

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Is food security just about growing more food?

It’s not that simple. Science has many of the answers, but the development of new technologies cannot solve the problem alone, just as no single country can grow the world’s food.

Science must deliver new technologies which then need to be disseminated to farmers around the world – and that will require political negotiation for some market barriers to be removed and reduced.

At the same time, technology needs to be introduced at the correct pace in some developing countries to avoid the social and problems that technology can bring if deployed too quickly, such as negative effects on local prices and employment.

In addition, new technology should either have a reduced carbon footprint, or allow carbon trading (preferably both) to manage local environmental impacts and provide incentives for innovation and land management.  

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Does climate change affect food security?

Climate change will be good for food production in some ways. The extra CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to plants fixing more carbon, which will increase yields (horticulturalists use atmospheric CO2 at around 1400 parts-per-million (ppm); the amount in the natural atmosphere now is 387ppm, up from 300ppm in pre-industrial levels).

Global warming will also lead to huge swathes of land, particularly in Siberia and Canada, becoming suitable for industrial-scale farming.

On the bad side, global warming will increase the amount of desert in the world, increase drought, and may exacerbate problems in areas that already struggle such as parts of Africa and Australia. The extra heat will also increase activity in insects – the principle pests of food.

An important factor is that although climate change will be good and bad for food production it’s the pace of change that makes it a problem. Even if some changes are positive, if we can’t react quickly enough to them and establish new agricultural zones as fast as others are lost the net result is negative. 

And of course, food production is a big producer of greenhouse gases, so some would argue that the above question should be more ‘how does food security affect climate change?’

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