Britain must grow more sustainable food

A 'Grow your own' revolution planned as Hillary Benn says that Britain must grow more sustainable food

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Proposals for national food strategy calls for UK farming 'revolution' in response to climate change and food security, and the way we are presently working cannot continue, that is certain. Two world wars and the problems as to imports when Britain was blockaded by U-Boats should have taught us that; but, apparently, it has not.

While eating less red meat will help achieve sustainable food production, grass-fed livestock play a role in minimising farming's CO2 emissions, says the Soil Association, and grasslands do play a great role in CO2 sequestration too.

Britain must grow more food in a different way to respond to mounting ecological challenges such as climate change, and help provide food for burgeoning world populations, the environment secretary Hilary Benn has told farmers.

"Food security is as important to this country's future well-being – and the world's – as energy security. We need to produce more food. We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure that what we eat safeguards our health," he said.

Launching the government's food strategy goals for the next 20 years with a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, he proposed a consumer-led, technological revolution which would transform UK farming over the next generation. "We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves. There are challenges for everyone involved in the food system, from production right through to managing food waste."

The government aims to develop a "meanwhile" lease to formalize arrangements between landowners and voluntary groups by encouraging people to set up temporary allotments or community gardens on land awaiting development or other permanent use. It is also considering establishing a "land bank" to broker better links and ensure plots are not left idle.

Ministers believe the move could foster community spirit and skills as well as improve physical and mental health.

Why should those allotments be temporary only though? Why not create some proper permanent ones for everyone who wants to have one and to also set up proper community gardens along the models that have shown to work in the United States?

We need to bring the brownfield sites in towns and cities into use, as well as the old airfields and such that have really no other use, at least not presently, and turn them into allotments and community gardens of one sort or the other.

"People power can help bring about a revolution in the way food is produced and sold, and that food businesses, including supermarkets and food manufacturers, would follow consumer demand for food that is local, healthy and has been produced with a smaller environmental footprint – just as consumers have pushed the rapid expansion of Fairtrade products and free range eggs over the last decade," Benn said.

"We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now."

"A decade ago, only 16% of eggs produced in the UK were free range. In the last 10 years that's more than doubled to just under 40%. Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op now sell only free range or organic eggs. And with the UK 80% self-sufficient in free-range eggs this is a great example of how our farmers have responded to what consumers want, to the benefit of both."

About one in three people in the UK grows fruit and vegetables, according to a survey commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Ministers hope the voluntary sector can help build on examples such as that set by the National Trust, which hopes to have established 1,000 allotment plots on restored kitchen gardens, agricultural land and vacant spaces, in its varied property portfolio by 2012.

The cross-departmental policy report, Food 2030, will also support further farmers' and community markets to boost consumption of local produce.

It is also high time that people be encouraged and even compelled, to some degree, to have their back gardens for growing food rather than just flowers or worse still have it covered with decking or whatever else. Front gardens too could, just like in many places in America, put into food production for households.

But, compared with the government's own sustainable development commission, the report appears more cautious about changing agriculture, by, for instance, encouraging less reliance on intensive meat and dairy production.

The Food 2030 report will acknowledge that livestock production is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions but say that the evidence that would allow consumers to decide whether or not to cut the environmental footprint of their diet, is still unclear.

"Not all types of meat have the same impacts, neither do all systems of production," it will state, while adding that livestock farming could be the only economically productive activity possible in some hilly areas.

In a forward to the report Gordon Brown speaks of the need to ensure the annual £80bn-a-year food industry thrives, but adds: "We can't carry on just as we are. We need to produce more food without damaging the natural resources – air, soil, water and marine resources, biodiversity and climate – that we all depend on. We need to feed more people globally, many of whom want, or need to eat, a better diet."

Emma Hockridge, policy manager of the Soil Association, said: "Consumers are feeling increasingly confused by the proliferation of diet-related advice doled out by government departments. The debate about meat encapsulates this. Whilst it is right that we need to eat less meat overall to achieve sustainable food production, red meat, as long as it is from grass-fed livestock, has a critical role to play in minimising carbon emissions from farming. This is because grasslands for grazing represent vitally important carbon stores.

"The government makes an excellent suggestion that publicly owned land should be converted to growing spaces. The Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) is already leading the way by encouraging schools to grow their own food. FFLP gives communities access to seasonal, local and organic food, and to the skills they need to cook and grow fresh food for themselves."

Benn also promised £50m for food and agriculture research over the next five years. Much of the money, which he said would come from different sources including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, would go to find ways to reduce carbon loss from soils and waste food and finding ways to grow food with less fertilizer, pesticides and other inputs. "One of the reasons [we're putting in £50m] is because we are less clear about the difference climate change will make to our land in 20 or 30 years time. So prioritizing the protection of our soil, our water, our plants and our biodiversity is something that makes sense today", he said.

However, Benn was careful not to mention GM foods in his speech even though government is known to be in favor of making it much easier for farmers to grow the controversial foods. He did, however, make enough mention of it at other places and this is something that we really must get away from.

Genetically modified foods and organisms are not good for people nor for the environment and in addition to that we would all become dependent on a small number of special seed companies, such as Monsanto and their ilk.

The campaign group Sustain said the report recommended only "soft" measures, such as wasting less food, and avoided tough issues, such as reducing children's consumption of junk food by, for example, properly protecting young people from marketing.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, said: "The government's food vision is hardly worthy of the name. The document proposes a series of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system and ignores obvious ideas to help British farmers, like improving the food that government itself buys.

"What we need is an ambitious program of investment in British farming so that it can produce healthy and sustainable food. If the government is serious about making our food system sustainable, it must put its money where its mouth is and only spend taxpayers' money on good-quality and sustainable food."

Yesterday at the same conference, Nick Herbert, the shadow environment secretary, backed plans for a government watchdog to rule on disputes between supermarkets and their suppliers. "We will introduce an ombudsman to curb abuses of power which undermine our farmers and act against the long-term interest of consumers", he said. The Competition committee watchdog had last year asked the government to establish an ombudsman after a majority of retailers failed to agree on a voluntary arrangement. Government has so far declined to respond, but Benn told reporters at the conference a decision is expected soon.

The ideas of an ombudsman is popular with farmers and market gardeners who have long complained that Britain's large supermarket chains which control up to 80% of the grocery market. take undue advantage of their power. However, the idea has been opposed by supermarkets who have said it would create an unnecessary and costly layer of bureaucracy and could lead to higher prices. "The abuse of market power by retailers damages farmers' ability to innovate and invest which, in turn, leads to a reduction in choice and availability for consumers," said the NFU in a statement.

What government still does not understand, and the Secretary of State definitely not either as can be seen from what he said, is that it is not more modern technology that farmers need. Rather the opposite.

We need to return to ways that we used in the olden days, from putting manure on the field, and crop rotation to using horses again to farm.

The model of the Amish farms in the USA should be an example to use. Those are the only farms in America that actually make a profit and the Amish with the old methods are also the only ones that can take lands that are worn out by modern farming with fertilizers and chemicals of all sorts and restore them to full health and productivity again.

British farming must get away from the factory farm and back to the family farm and the same is true for other countries too. The factory farm is not sustainable and as Fritz Schumacher said in “Small is Beautiful”: “The main danger to the soil, and therewith not only to agriculture but to civilization as a whole, stems from the townsman's determination to apply to agriculture the principles of industry”. This statement was true when he wrote it and is even more so today.

Time to rethink!

© 2010