UK’s Risky Reliance on Foreign Produce

The UK is dependent on food imports and therefore at the mercy of policies and events outside its control

According to the National Farmers Union (NFU), the amount of food now produced in the UK has slumped to 60 per cent of what we need to be self-sufficient, making us more dependent than ever on imports.

The NFU, which represents 70 per cent of UK farmers, have drawn up a table showing, at ten-year intervals, the number of days domestically produced food will last. In 2013 this was 219 days and by 2023 it will have fallen by an estimated six days.

In a policy document released in the run-up to the recent general election, the NFU called on the future UK government to tackle European Union agricultural policy, especially the EU’s emphasis on “greening” the countryside.

NFU policy director Andrew Clark believes far too much of the rural development money granted to the UK is spent on environment management rather than food production.

Mr Clark says: “The point of farming is food production. This is something the market wants.” He points out that the reverse happens in the Netherlands and Ireland, where the focus is on producing food, underlining he is not against improving the environment, but that this should not be at the cost of food production.

If the North American and European wheat harvests fail through drought, and the Asian monsoon also fails – then we’re in trouble

He believes that if we are to become more self-sufficient as a nation then the government should be backing capital grants to farmers so they can invest in new machinery, polytunnels and buildings. “Once you have those buildings up, you can produce for the market,” he says.

The NFU is also fighting an EU temporary ruling banning pesticides containing neonicotinoid chemicals. The EU ruled that they were harmful to honey bees, whose large loss across Europe, including the UK, is troubling environmentalists and the public. Farmers claim that the oil seed rape crop has been particularly affected by the ban, reporting yields dropping by up to 30 per cent and crops being attacked by flea beetles.

Richard Tiffin, director of the Centre for Food Security at Reading University, agrees that we have to produce more food and questions how resilient the UK food system would be subject to future extreme weather events.

He says we are likely to see more of these events with researches estimating the probability of extreme weather is likely to increase from once in every two hundred days to once in thirty.

UK trade in different food groups

“If the North American and European wheat harvests fail through drought, and the Asian monsoon also fails – then we’re in trouble,” says Professor Tiffin. “That will happen at some point in the next 100 years. We will have civil unrest associated with that and we need to think how we defend ourselves. We have to work it out as a global community.”

Visit any supermarket and you will see how much food we import. But why? For example, although we export more than £300 million-worth of poultry meat to countries around the world, we are not self-sufficient, importing 26 per cent
of the poultry consumed in the UK, according to the British Poultry Council.

Watts Farms is a family business that grows more than 70 varieties of vegetables and herbs in ten locations, totalling 600 hectares in Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire. It has an annual turnover of £30 million, supplying major retailers and wholesalers, as well as the NHS and 500 up-market restaurants.

Director Joe Cottingham believes that supported by government-backed research and development, the UK could boost food production. “We have to keep up with the rest of the world,” he says. “We’re going to fall behind and we cannot increase land. If we let our self-sufficiency drop, it becomes more of a challenge. It concerns me – and there are more and more lorries on our roads full of foreign produce.”

Tim Mead, who runs Somerset’s Yeo Valley organics, a company with a £300-million turnover in dairy products, says that 300,000 tons of yogurt comes into the UK annually from countries as far away as America, Canada, Poland and Portugal. “That is one truck every half hour,” he says.

So do we need a radical new approach to farming to achieve self-sufficiency?

This is the case put forward by Patrick Holden, former director of the Soil Association and founder of the Sustainable Food Trust. Mr Holden, who farms 320 acres in West Wales, producing cheese from his dairy herd, says we could go a long way towards self-sufficiency and sustainability by changing our diet and farming practices.

He advocates not using nitro-fertilisers and pesticides, which he says have diminished the soil, and switching to eating pasture-fed red meat and occasionally chicken.

Mr Holden’s faith lies in the millennial generation of young people under the age of 30. “Already in America there are signs they are leading a change and no longer going to fast food restaurants,” he says. “It’s no longer cool to eat fast food from intensive agriculture.”