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We cannot allow the market to set the landscape of our countryside and food supply.

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Food: Sustainability, Security, Self-reliance

February 20th, 2013

by Caroline Allen

While the horse meat scandal rumbles on the wider issue of how we are going to feed ourselves in the future is no further to being addressed, argues Caroline Allen.

In a global battle for food resources we are unlikely to end up as winners

Poor harvests and rising food costs have become a depressingly familiar news item, with unusual weather patterns affecting food production across the US, Russia and in the UK. At the same time, more and more people are struggling to feed themselves and their families.

Stagnating incomes and benefit cuts have left increasing numbers having to resort to food banks. Late last year the Trussell Trust said its food bank network had fed almost 110,000 people in a six month period, compared with a total of 128,697 in the whole of 2011-12.

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the recent food price rises are part of a longer term trend: a larger global population, rising meat consumption, increasing pressure on farm land and use of crops for fuel are all reasons why global demand for food staples will increase.

While there is no definitive proof that climate change is responsible for the recent abnormal weather, models suggest a warming planet will cause changes in weather patterns that will have a major effect on food production.

It’s not just growers and farmers who will be affected - a recent study by Oceana concluded that some of the poorest nations can expect to lose up to 40% of their fish-catch by 2050 due to climate change and ocean acidification. Many people in these countries are reliant on seafood as their major source of protein.

It is clear that we cannot rely on our food supply to operate in the way that is has previously. We need, urgently, to build resilience into it. Naturally, the food industry will call for more intensification and larger scale enterprises, more big business and an end to ‘uneconomic’ small scale farming.

This response might seem compelling: the first ‘green revolution’ based around intensification, increasing use of fertilizers, pesticides and monocultures and a globalised food economy, have contributed to food affordability (the ratio between food prices and consumer expenditure) improving by 100% in the 20 years to 2008 in the UK.

However, there is much evidence that the external costs of this ‘revolution’ have been high and to continue down this route is unlikely to bring further benefits. On the contrary, the impacts on soil, water resources and biodiversity will likely result in lowered yields. Our own health and that of our rural communities and the countryside has suffered.

Cheap food often means unhealthy food of low nutritional value and the costs to the NHS of diet related ill health is estimated at £7billion. In 2009 3.4 million people lived in rural households with incomes below the government’s main threshold of low income, a figure that has surely increased since.

Modern intensive agriculture is recognised as one of the major causes of loss of biodiversity, and the state of our soils is of great concern. Overseas, indigenous people have been forced off their land, often so that the land can be used to grow cash crops, animal feed or biofuel crops, and workers are exploited across the globe.

In the UK, jobs in the agriculture and food sector are notoriously low paid, often not paying a living wage, so the taxpayer is actually subsidising this sector – through tax credits and housing benefit. 

Intensive farming is highly fossil fuel dependant, contributing to climate change and making it very susceptible to rising fuel prices. Who can forget the fuel blockades in 2000, when after just a few days we were warned that shops would be out of food.

Intensive livestock agriculture is a particularly extreme example of how our food chain has gone badly wrong. Pollution from animal waste, the risk of serious disease outbreaks, including pandemics and reliance on antibiotics with associated resistance issues, all point towards an industry that is truly unsustainable.

Never mind the massive ethical issues around the way we treat millions of fellow sentient beings. Now I am hearing politicians ask if better animal welfare is a luxury we can no longer afford. In fact what we cannot afford to do is continue to produce meat in this way. A report by Compassion in World Farming showed that intensive animal farming reduces food security when compared to extensive farming, due to the need to feed the animals on grain.

But the question remains, in spite of these problems, can food be affordable without further intensification? Can we reverse the trend towards industrialisation of farming and actually improve our countryside and soils, while giving farm workers a decent income?

Having researched this while working on a review of Green Party agricultural policy and spoken to many farmers, I believe we can, but it will require a radical readjustment of the way we produce and sell food. We need to completely reform the supply chain, so that small scale farmers can access the market fairly.

Alternative models of food distribution, such as food co-operatives, need to be established and direct farm to consumer schemes such as community supported agriculture encouraged. We need to ensure that farmers and growers can make a decent living and can’t be forced to sell their products for less than they cost to produce. We need to ensure we are training people to farm sustainably. We need to tackle food waste at all levels of the food chain and ensure that people have the skills and time available to cook healthy food.

The Common Agriculture Policy requires urgent reform, so that it supports sustainable farming, global food security and regional self-reliance, rather than ‘global competitiveness’. ‘Land grabbing’ must be stopped and food speculation tightly regulated. And if we accept that we are all being affected by the external costs of cheap food, we need to accept that the government has a responsibility to drive these changes, through targeted taxes and subsidies if necessary.

We cannot allow the market to set the landscape of our countryside and food supply. In a global battle for food resources we are unlikely to end up as winners. 

Finally we can’t ignore the other side of the affordability question: it’s not just about cheap food; it’s about pay and equality. Recent research has shown that nearly five million people failed to command the living wage - a pay packet that enabled a basic standard of living.

If people were paid a living wage and decent benefits, then the drive for cheaper food at any cost would cease to be an issue. And if housing and other basic necessities were more affordable for all, healthy, ethically sourced and sustainable food would be within the reach of everyone.

Caroline Allen is a vet and community campaigner. She is the Green Party's Spokesperson on animal issues and also has worked on science, food, animal and conservation policy.

References on request (email: andrea@theecologist.org).

Image of scales courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

 

 

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