Is food security relevant to post-Brexit British agricultural policy?

The classical economic view is that it should be left to free-trade; each nation produces what it is good at and trades with others for what it is not so good at producing. This maximizes the economic return to all. For the UK, this may mean selling financial services whilst buying its basic foods from others. With the current Government one can see this argument going a long way.

With the freedom to decide with whom it trades will the UK import its food commodities from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the Ukraine? For its premium foods, will it look to France and Italy; after all they are good at them.

Does this equate with ensuring the food security of the British people? Given that one threat to food security is a poor harvest, sourcing your eggs from various global baskets has merit. This works on the, one hopes realistic, assumption that the movement of goods into the UK will not be impacted by conflict. One should not forget that the root of pre-EU British agricultural policy was the 1947 Agricultural Act, drafted soon after the Battle of the Atlantic.

The import-dependent approach to food security also assumes that the British people can pay for what they need. Will a post-Brexit UK have the earning power and currency strength to source its food internationally? Will it be able to do so in times of global shortage when, for example, the Chinese [who are investing to secure their international food supply chains] are a major food importer. Simply, there is a risk in globalising your food security.

On the other side of the debate we have the National Farmers Union championing food security. Is it just an argument for maintaining farm support at current, Brussels-provided levels? Will the governing political class be convinced to share the objective that, say, two-thirds of the national food supply is produced at home? Or will they prefer to tell the British consumer/taxpayer that they have more to gain from a lower-cost, imported food supply and a lower farm-support burden?

To my mind these arguments just miss too many important points about food security. They do not fully consider the actual, global and UK, food supply situation and what threatens it.

There is much talk about climate change and that it will impact upon our food supplies. In the case of the UK there is even the suggestion that a warmer climate may enhance the productive potential. Although we are often told about the importance of emissions reductions and that agriculture must play a major role in such, one still has the impression that its consequences are still away in the future. If it is decades, it is well out of the democratic, political timeframe. But maybe there is more at play here than climate change per se; maybe there are immediate food security issues?

I have recently giving some editorial help on a book chapter about the importance of grazing livestock to the resilience of our future food systems. It refers to other writings that say we have, in global terms, only about 60 harvests left in our soils; they are being degraded for several reasons that fast. In the UK, it may be around 100 and possibly less in the grain producing regions of south and east England. I have seen the latter happen during my own farming lifetime so such a statement does not surprise me. It should be startling to others. Given the global situation [which is a timeframe within the lifespan of our children] there is not even the opportunity to be complacent at England’s remaining century. Simply, food import reliance may not be a long-term option.

Various gases may be invisibly rising into our atmosphere with consequences that some still choose to deny, but the loss of our soils is, from the perspective of our food security, as equally critical. Is it really an issue that can be left till later? No not at all; we are not going to be able to address soil loss and the loss of organic matters from our soils in a few years, it will take decades and those decades are all that we have. As to the importance of grazing livestock, well I do not believe we can just compost our way back to healthy soils. But that is another story. Soil health is a critical issue worldwide and it is important to recognise, within the context of food security, that Britain can only address the issue at home; it cannot address it directly elsewhere. By outsourcing its food supplies it runs the very grave risk of placing its food security in the hands of others who may just lack the vision to address the soil health issue before it is too late.

The degradation of our soils is not our sole food production problem facing; there are others which are occurring concurrently. They have a common thread; the ability of the natural world to get the better of the human race’s technology. And it is not just a single technology that is losing out, it is a plethora of them. They are also the one’s that underpin the large-scale, industrial agriculture that has made food affordable to our urban populations. The fact that these technologies are so often used in cropping and animal farming monocultures is no coincidence.

Let us start with herbicide resistance in weeds. We hear a lot now about glyphosate and whether its overuse is leading to health problems. It was an expensive, sparingly used, targeted weed killer in my youth. It is for many farmers a vital tool; especially when they are practicing low-tillage cropping. It is now the World’s most widely used herbicide due to the development of glyphosate-resistant, genetically-modified crops and its generic, ‘off-label’ lower cost. They have allowed glyphosates blanket use across vast areas of the World’s cropping land. If it is banned it will have been a significant own goal. That said, its widespread use is leading to the development of resistant weeds [a process of natural selection]. It is probably only a question of which stops glyphosate first, those lobbying for legislation to ban its use or the very weeds that it is supposed to kill. Either way, farming will lose a well-used tool.

On related note, blackgrass is becoming an ever-greater problem in the UK. It is becoming resistant to herbicides. It is forcing some farmers to switch from higher-yielding autumn-sown cereal crops to their spring equivalent so it will have a food supply implication. It is a problem for those practicing, lower-emission zero-till and min-till arable farming. Hence, it will also have a climate-change-addressing implication. It may soon reach a point where blackgrass has to be addressed through the re-introduction of grass leys to arable rotations and that will mean re-introducing livestock. With their potential to rebuild organic matter in the soils via appropriate grazing practices and direct/indirect manuring, it can be a win-win; but it will only be achieved with an investment cost.

About 20 years ago, I did some interesting work for the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge. The objective was to take their technical evaluation ratings of cereal varieties [grain quality, disease resistance etc.] and predict the likely financial performance of the different varieties in National List trials. Personally, I was keen to highlight the value of selecting cultivars with better disease resistance, standing power and quality.  It involved a complex model that assessed disease resistance and determined a likely one, two, three or four fungicide spray regime [plus seed dressing] for each variety. On one side, it involved varietal disease resistance and on the other the efficacy of many fungicides at different application rates.

At the time, we were seeing very high levels of disease control being achieved and, consequentially, improved yields. It included fine tuning and low rates of this and that fungicide to create targeted, cost-effective ‘cocktails’. It was effective. Now I look back and wonder whether the use of low rates of fungicides has helped the very fungal diseases that were being targeted to adapt and to develop resistance faster than might otherwise have been the case. It is only speculation and hindsight on my part, but I do wonder whether we were being a little too clever for our own good. Did we open Pandora’s Box?

And then we have the not so small matter of rising antibiotic resistance and there are obvious consequences for human health if we lose antibiotics. This is also linked to their on-farm use. It will lead to an impact on our food supply. Antibiotics are widely used in intensive, confined livestock production systems and one wonders how they will cope with restrictions on antibiotic use. One also wonders if the breeding of ultra-lean and/or very fast growing strains of farm livestock is helping? Are they more susceptible to illness? Antibiotic use is an immediate issue. Further, on a more livestock farming-only note, just how serious is the resistance of internal parasites to our worming treatments becoming? Is it another example of the natural world getting one step ahead of our technology? If it is, it is another issue that threatens our food security.

It is also not just about pathogen resistance to our ‘chemical’ solutions. Just what is the prognosis for our supplies of artificial fertilizers? Setting aside any concerns about the environmental implications of their use, for how long are we going to have the fossil fuel resources available for their creation? Or maybe we will devise ways to use renewable fuels for such [I understand that the Chinese use charcoal for such [I cannot say if they use sustainable plantation timber or natural forests for such]. For food security reasons, we need to think beyond just artificial fertilizers and begin to reduce our dependence on them by changing our approach to feeding plants.

Last but very not least, what about our pollinators? Do any of us doubt that our future as a human species is inexorably linked to the future of these highly industrious creatures? When you read of their decline, obviously, many do. We just cannot continue to be so cavalier about their wellbeing. They are a part of what we call biodiversity and they may be small [but not as small as the equally important life that is found in our soils] but they are vital to our long-term food security. Their future is our future. And as I am now often fond of saying; it is no longer good enough that biodiversity survives alongside our farming systems, it must thrive within them.

To conclude, personally, I do not advocate a continuation of production support payments post Brexit. I think tax payer’s money should be targeted far more directly at crucial issues, several of which I have highlighted above. Yes, it is about food security but in the context of creating robust farming systems that are adapted to address the multifarious issues that lie ahead. Creating such will mean change and with change comes costs, some of which may be justifiably met from the public purse; not least when the alternative is to risk the food security of future generations.

The issues above will provide challenges and some of those will be met adequately by our science and technology, others may prove beyond them. As I have been saying elsewhere, we will also need to return to using more traditional farming husbandry to ensure that we have resilient food systems going forward. And that means placing more reliance on the farmer as a manager and the on-farm resources that she or he has available to hand. Thus, the UK needs a farming and food policy that supports the endeavours of all to achieve food security for now and into the future.

And in case you have missed my underlying point, these issues and, by association, our food security is not an issue for tomorrow; the problems are here and now and escalating by the day. Simply put, we have exploited and exhausted our soils and we have overused and abused our farming technologies. It is opportune that Brexit is allowing a revision of food and farming policy in the UK; let us hope it is an opportunity that is met with thought, wisdom and common sense as it cannot be left for succeeding generations to suffer the consequences of our generation not recognizing and rectifying the recent errors in our farming ways.

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