Should we be importing so much of our food?

Wheat just emerging.

World food prices rose for a second consecutive month in September and is now approaching a record 10 year high. This is mostly caused by a global increase in the price of cereals and oilseeds. In the summer of 2020, Russia and Kazakhstan both constrained or even stopped completely their export of agricultural commodities. Further price rises have been spurred on by disruptive weather events around the globe which have reduced production. May, June and August were all well below the normal average sunshine hours in the UK which combined with the cold, dry April helped pin back grain yield in this country. As an aside, along with a lack of wind, this has really hit our renewable electricity generation. The energy and the gas supply problems that we are currently experiencing should make us stop and think about our nation’s security in energy and more importantly in food. Global grain production has been exponentially growing in line with population growth since records began. If climate change causes that link to be broken, our current government’s policy of importing more and more of our food looks decidedly dubious. If the public can panic buy the petrol stations dry and then start fighting over who gets what, just imagine what would happen over food. I do not want to see my grandchildren go hungry so I will keep raising this at every opportunity I get until those in power take a dose of reality. We cannot export our environmental footprint and rewild the UK whilst importing food produced to lower standards from some of the world’s worst factory farms. We need to find a new way to support farmers and protect the environment. The National Farmers Union and our excellent President Minette Batters have been in the spotlight a lot in the last few weeks. Firstly, over the lack of C02 for use in stunning animals to be slaughtered and its use in food packaging. C02 is a by-product from the production of nitrogen fertiliser. The huge hike in gas prices meant the fertiliser factories shut down production, so halting the supply of C02 and fertiliser.  Consequently, the price of both commodities has shot up. Manufactured fertiliser is now double the price it was in June, that’s if you can even get it. Secondly, there has been the crisis in the pig industry. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s crass comments that pigs are going to be slaughtered anyway, it is a totally different matter if they have to be killed on farm for welfare reasons due to there not being enough capacity in slaughter houses caused by staff shortages. Farmers care deeply for their stock and many have spent a lifetime building up herds to provide good, wholesome food for us, not to go to an incinerator. All of this shows a government who does not seem to understand the fundamentals of farming and the food supply industry. This is why the NFU are now calling for the end of the current subsidy system to be put on hold until a new way of protecting our countryside and safeguarding our food supply can be properly prepared for, as they are doing in the devolved parts of the UK. The government’s new scheme for England has so far been lacking in detail and is failing to gain any traction with farmers. A recent study has shown levels of depression in the farming industry is at an all-time high. Although it talks about not been valued by the public, personally I don’t agree with that, but I do feel that we are totally undervalued by the government who would rather not have us at all. That is incredibly disheartening as we battle against rising costs and dramatic weather events. We need a new partnership, one that is built on mutual trust and we are currently a long way from that.

Meanwhile back at home we are doing our bit and the wheat for next year’s bread is now in the ground and just poking through, so we haven’t given up just yet.

8 thoughts on “Should we be importing so much of our food?

  1. Completely agree with every word of this, Simon. And the only way we non-farmers can help is through our choices in Tesco – read the label first.

  2. Hi Simon,

    Another very interesting blog, thank you. I have a question that teases me now and again. There does seem to be a tug of war between rewilding and feeding ourselves with home grown produce. Has anyone worked out how much land we would need to feed ourselves without imports if we really needed to do that? I know it might depend on what we are prepared to eat, but someone in the farming industry must have sat down and worked a range out: between x and y hectares. Another teasing question is how much land is available to rewild, as clearly the loss of habitat is having a devasting impact of wildlife, with goodness knows what downstream impact. I think these two questions need to be analysed together and wonder if anyone or organisation has had a go at it.

  3. The NFU have lots of facts and figures and have tried to answer this question. Part of our problem is the huge amount of food that we waste in this country. However it makes no sense at all if we rewild in the UK but then import our food from areas of the world who have decimated their own ecosystem to provide that food. That’s before we even start to consider the carbon footprint of getting it here.

  4. “However it makes no sense at all if we rewild in the UK but then import our food from areas of the world who have decimated their own ecosystem to provide that food. ” Yes, I couldn’t agree more with that and the issue really needs a long hard look. It’s totally pointless to rewild here by knocking down a rainforest. The questions will continue to tease, so if you come across any studies on this, please pass them on. I hope we can find the right balance, and get on with implementing it!

  5. Hell yeah, it is all a question of balance. A balanced mindset on both sides is paramount in tackling both crises as one dictates the other and vice versa. Those environmentalists and campaigners viewing rewilding as a must-have surely need to visit our British farmsteads and estates and look at the areas of scrub, wooded pastures, woodland and rough areas already in existence. On this aspect, I hope the British government is considering payment you farmers for what you already have in place. These same campaigners (and I am a keen naturalist but not an activist) EAT food as much as the next man or woman. Ultimately, many UK farmers struggle to merely reach a profit and a decent yield from their crops or livestock every year. Thereby it is a no-brainer to support both nature-friendly food production and higher-yielding wildlife populations. I can see a time soon for new branding, Bunting-friendly Barley, Linnet-friendly Linseed. Ok, on the latter, I’m a tad biased towards my songbirds.

    Best wishes

    Tony Powell and naturestimeline

  6. Great blog, as always. I know this is from November, but the situation has with fertiliser and grain prices has got even worse thanks to the war in Ukraine. Couple of thoughts. Rewilding v crops. I’m not a farmer and live in an urban environment, but I wonder if at least towns and villages couldn’t help with the rewilding and take some of the burden off some of the farming land. I realise it’s not practical for some species of animals, but there are a lot of urban spaces that can be made to support better wildlife habitats. Second, farmers need to somehow get their message across to the public better. Programmes like Countryside seem a waste of time. Blogs like this are great, but sadly the views are probably v low amongst the wider public. The thought of a stampede at supermarkets for food is worrying. I do, however, see a move towards eating less meat, particularly amongst younger people, which I believe does make sense for self-sufficiency in food from some of the modelling I’ve seen. Also, as Simon points out, waste is huge and let’s face it the UK has the most overweight population in the UK, so maybe people don’t need to eat quite as many calories as they do.

    Complex problem, lots of solutions require, but good at least to be having the debate, even if our politicians don’t listen….at the moment.

  7. Some good thoughts there Andrew. Just about to post a follow up to some of that.

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