Serious fruit and vegetable boom needed to feed Britain

In the face of climate change and for reasons of food security, food experts call for more home-grown fruit and vegetables and less grain for cattle

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

This is an image that would be worthy of a Keats poem or a Constable landscape painting: great orchards bursting with fruit, fields crammed with ripening vegetables and hillsides covered with sheep and cattle.

It is not a dream, however, of bygone rural glories. Rather it is a vision of the kind of countryside that Britain is more than likely going to need if it is to survive the impact of climate change, higher oil prices, and other calamities, according to leading agricultural experts.

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Those experts have warned that only a total revolution in the nation's food industry can save Britain from serious shortages of staples as world oil production peaks, the climate continues to heat up, the population grows and our dietary needs continue to evolve.

And while the climate may be heating up elsewhere there is also a possibility that in other parts it could get colder, such as in Britain, due, possibly, also to the shift in the magnetic north, or, to put it more correctly, due to a shift of the earth axle. This shift seems to have negatively affected the Atlantic oscillation and with it the Gulf Stream.

This will mean a complete shake-up in the way we farm the countryside. At present Britain imports more than 90 per cent of the fruit it consumes and also a great amount of its vegetables. How sensible is it to fly in green beens – French beans – from Kenya when they are in season in the UK as well.

“We face some awesome changes in the way we deal with food production,” said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London. “For the past century we have relied on oil to produce more and more food for ourselves – mainly through the use of petroleum products to make cheap fertilizers.”

The problem is that oil is becoming more and more expensive and is also linked to dangerous emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. With expensive oil petroleum-based fertilizers also will be becoming much, much more expensive and as a result the prices for food will have to go up.

As a result, food experts such as Lang have been pressing the government to develop a proper strategy for ensuring that Britain is able to supply itself with food for the rest of the century, but in a way that fits in with the nation's goals on climate change.

It is simply not acceptable for Britain to continue to import foodstuffs such as beans from countries like Kenya, they say. The nation needs to be self-sustaining and to do this in an environmentally friendly manner.

It would appear that finally someone up there – no, not God – has been listening to what I have been saying for ages now as to the beans from Kenya, etc., and is starting to say the same. Hopefully, the powers that be are listening.

One key approach relies on a return to past methods of food production. The nation needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables, said Lang. This country produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats. That has to change. We need to consider orchard planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables.” And one can but agree here wholeheartedly.

Ever since the Second World War this country has gone to eating more and more meat and fewer and fewer vegetables and fruit. Meat was once something reserved for Sunday and special occasions and high holy days, with the exception of, maybe, sausages and bacon. The predominate food was vegetables and fruits, in whichever way prepared.

It cannot be acceptable that 40% of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed the cattle and sheep that provide us with meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to deliver protein to the populace.

Cattle and sheep should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilisers for its growth. Prime land should be used to feed people directly. Pigs should be kept and fed again as they used to in times gone by. People lived well by them and they were the garbage disposal for most home garbage and more than that even.

The debates around what and how much food the UK should produce and import should, nay must, be based upon the priorities of providing a vibrant food economy that is socially just, environmentally benign and provides for a healthy population. And this is simply not the case currently.

Such changes in the use of the countryside do have other implications, however. More people will be required to work this altered landscape while productive land will have to be protected from development. We are going to have to revolutionise the way we use the countryside and we must return to the way it used to be.

That transformation will require a return to old ways that might be welcome but equally there could be changes that might cause upset, such as the building of more rural homes to house those needed to work there. Those homes, however, must be built for those that work there. Then again there will, probably, homes become available that will no longer be needed by those that used to use the villages as dormitories only and were working in town. The latter will have to be moving back into towns and cities to be close(r) to where there work is. The daily commute of ten to hundreds of miles will no longer be feasible with oil being scarce and £20 a gallon or more.

But we will have to face up to these challenges as well and we must master them.

The countryside will, no doubt, be worked, once again, in time honored ways and fashion by animal and human power rather than the hundreds of horsepower tractors and combines and such.

The same will also be the case in forestry and the time of the harvesting machines too will be history and those giants of destruction to forests will become part of the history books. After a while they will not even be remembered anymore.

The Amish and other “horse & buggy” farmers in the United States, are the only farms that make profit, serious profit, while most of the big farms – most general farms – can only continue in existence because of the generous farm subsidies from the government and other handouts. Without those payments the ordinary farms, including the factory farms, would no longer be viable and would cease to exist.

No wonder therefore that there are a number of young (and not so young farmers) in America and elsewhere are returning to farming with animal and human power only, and it seems to work.

© 2011