Comment from Robin Maynard, Soil Association campaigns director: [In the article below] Lord Haskins referring to the wartime blockade of Britain's food and fuel convoys thinks it 'is inconceivable in today's world that such an emergency would re-occur', sharing the optimistic outlook of the recent Defra report on food security that , 'as a rich country open to trade, the UK is well placed to access sufficient foodstuffs through a well-functioning world market.'

But it is Haskin's 'business as usual' scenario that is inconceivable given the challenges which climate change and scarcer, more costly oil bring to global food production and trade, certainly much greater and longer-lasting than the U-boat's torpedoes. The scientific and political consensus that every sector of the economy must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 80% coupled with oil prices at over $130 a barrel necessitate radical reforms to farming and food distribution. The industrial GM oriented agriculture Haskins recommends are still hugely dependent on oil and major emitters of greenhouse gases. Artificial nitrogen fertiliser, the bedrock of such farming systems, consumes 37 tonnes of water and emits nearly 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne produced. None of the GM crops in the ground increase yields, they weren't designed to, at best according to even the US Department of Agriculture, they achieve the same or lower yields.

Ironically, countries like Africa which have typically been thought of as inherently food insecure might have some advantages over the UK. Over the past 60 years, hundreds of thousands of farmers and farm-workers have left the land in the UK as agriculture has been encouraged to specialise and displace labour with machinery and chemicals. Economically, if not environmentally or socially, this made sense whilst oil was cheap and plentiful and climate change not an issue.

Whilst Africa, Asia and Latin America have by default the low-input, high-labour farming models that provide the foundation for developing resilient agroecological systems, our own is highly vulnerable and far more so than at the outbreak of World War Two, when a diverse lattice-work of mixed-farms, local abattoirs and regional railway networks still existed.
Only free trade can guarantee food security
By Christopher Haskins
Financial Times, August 5 2008

The British government is concerned about food security because of the recent escalation of prices caused by the apparent shortage of supply in the global market. But while it makes sense to increase agricultural outputs responsibly, this cannot be justified on the grounds of security. The term “security” is an emotive one, conjuring up images of wartime food shortages caused by German U-boats. But it is inconceivable, in today’s world, that such an emergency would re-occur.

Today Britain is about 60 per cent self-sufficient in food production. Much of the remaining 40 per cent is made up of crops that could not be grown here for climatic reasons. Until 1846 Britain was virtually self-sufficient, thanks to protectionist barriers that restricted imports. But these were slashed by the government of Sir Robert Peel when he repealed the Corn Laws, thereby allowing cheap food into the country to feed the rapidly expanding urban population. Self-sufficiency declined steadily interrupted briefly by the blockades of the first and second world wars and was less than 40 per cent by 1939. After the war agricultural output rose steadily, and British farmers increased their market share from 40 per cent to a peak of 70 per cent in the 1970s. This was achieved behind protectionist barriers, first national and then European. When Britain joined the European Economic Community its farmers were encouraged to produce large surpluses, which had to be dumped on the
world's markets. The European Union then imposed production restraints, taking land out of crop production. Consequently British self-sufficiency declined to 60 per cent today still a high figure in historic terms.

If Britain, unilaterally, decided to increase this to 70-75 per cent it would have to reintroduce national protectionist barriers to restrict cheap imports. This would come as the rest of the world is seeking to reduce subsidies. If this policy were pursued Britain would have to withdraw from the EU, with profound economic consequences.

It seems unlikely that, even with such protection, British farmers could raise output beyond the 70-75 per cent achieved 20 years ago, unless the government actually banned the importation of tropical fruit and replaced many of the nation’s forests with apple orchards. The truth is that this island is heavily populated and does not have enough land to provide food for itself.

In the context of the European single market, however, Britain is much more self-sufficient, being able to purchase tariff-free fruit and vegetables from southern Europe which would not grow here because of the climate. The EU is a net exporter of food.

However, while food security is not a British or European issue, it is in many parts of the developing world. Countries such as Egypt and the Philippines, large net importers of food, face economic and political crises as a result of soaring prices. It makes sense for the EU to increase output after years of restraint to address the shortfall.

Three initiatives could be launched immediately. All restraints on production should be abandoned. Plans to switch land from food to biofuels should be urgently reviewed. Finally, the downward trend in expenditure on food research should be reversed.

It is important to get the present food crisis into proportion. In the short term the world’s farmers, because of high prices, will eliminate the deficit by bringing more land into production, especially in Europe and the US. However, in the medium term there may well be a global food crisis of Malthusian proportions if current demographic and climate trends continue. The world’s population will rise by 40 per cent and because of affluence it will want to eat more meat. That will require farmers to double their output, but there is a shortage of spare land. Climate change will cut farm outputs because of greater extremes of weather.

Richer countries can respond in various ways. They can provide funds to their poorer neighbours to enable them to exploit existing technology, create vital infrastructure for the conservation of water and successful storage of harvested crops and invest in research into new technologies, such as genetically modified foods, to produce crops that can cope with weather extremes.

Rather than return to protectionism, which is what those championing food security are suggesting, the priority should be to reduce barriers to trade in food, to enable those countries that have to import (including Britain and many in the developing world) to purchase their needs from elsewhere, expeditiously and without penalty.

Lord Haskins is former chairman of Northern Foods