We import 27% of our food from the EU, so what might Brexit mean for our food security?
Britain is a trading nation, as it has been since Medieval Abbots sold their wool in Flemish markets to Italian cloth makers. It is with good reason that the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords sits on a wool sack. At the pinnacle of Victorian Britain, trade across the empire fuelled the Industrial Revolution.
Trading partners have changed but the balance of food trade has remained roughly constant for 150 years – wartime excepted. We now import about 27% of the food consumed in the UK from the EU and produce about 54% ourselves. While it might seem self-evident that to produce more food at home would confer resilience on our supply, it is not necessarily true. The Irish potato blight of 1845-49 resulted in the death of more than 1 million people because they were reliant on a single home grown product.
What then might Brexit mean for our own food security?
That will depend on our future trading relationship with the EU, the level of subsidy conferred on our farmers, the strength of sterling, world harvests, and global demand. The original idea behind the common market was the creation of a market within which countries were able to trade without the imposition of tariffs or barriers. From an economic and efficiency perspective, an excellent idea – farmers would be able to produce what was best suited to their climate, soil type, terrain altitude and workforce and countries should trade for other foodstuffs grown more efficiently elsewhere.
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Sadly in agriculture the EU never quite got there. Subsidies were offered initially to encourage post-war production, to great effect but of course with the perverse effect of producing the butter mountains and milk lakes of the 1970’s. Flexibility in the use of subsidy by member states allowed the UK to direct its support towards environmental and acreage-based rather than product-based payments. Low agricultural commodity prices, a result of bumper harvests and low fuel costs globally, has meant that currently UK farmers earn more from subsidy than agriculture.
The drop in the value of sterling since the referendum should mean that farmers will be more competitive in their export markets. Conversely UK consumers will have to pay more for imported food.
If a trade deal for agricultural products can be agreed after we exit from the EU it is likely that it will depend upon rough parity or lower subsidy in the UK than the EU. Of course we could follow the example of New Zealand and remove agricultural subsidy altogether. This would either force our farmers out of business or create an extremely competitive industry. It would also, by necessity, change our approach to husbandry and our embrace of technology. Efficiencies of scale have already impacted cereal and milk production creating the large wheat monocultures of East Anglia and the massive cowsheds of Cheshire that have doubled the size, and halved the number, of dairies.
Uplands would find sheep being ranched and unproductive land might be left to ragwort and dockleaves. Precision agriculture, genetic modification and optimised fertiliser, herbicide and antibiotic use could help keep us competitive if trade deals allow; or if trade deals prove impossible they might be required to keep us fed. It may also be that our agriculture diversifies further and that smaller producers generate niche products which consumers are prepared to pay premium prices for. A mixed internal agricultural economy of highly efficient large scale producers and value-added niche producers sounds most attractive but single source supply within the UK could make us vulnerable to challenge – from disease or from lack of essential supply chain material such as fuel or fertiliser. Better to have the safety provided by trade. Outside the security of the single market it is likely that we would wish to develop other bilateral agreements, perhaps reinventing our links with the Commonwealth?
Our previous substantive Antipodean partners now have new markets in South East Asia and it is unlikely that they have forgotten our self-interested transfer of allegiance to Europe in the 1960’s and 70’s. Whether we are able to grow our own or establish trading agreements it seems certain that the security of British food supply will be weakened.
The growth of world population and improved wealth of those in China and India will undoubtedly put added pressure on agricultural commodities. It has been suggested that a 70% increase in total production will be required by 2050 (from a 2005 baseline). Britain would be wise to develop contingencies for a food crisis. Fiscal reserves might allow us to out-purchase competitors in the international markets but some of the largest potential consumers like the USA and China are also those with the deepest pockets.
There is no doubt that, given time, the UK could produce sufficient calories from its useable land to feed its population. It would certainly require a change in diet. Since it takes between 3 and 8kg of cereal to produce 1kg of meat, it would be rational to utilise the 21 million tonnes of cereal currently fed to livestock for direct human consumption. The animals could either be slaughtered for consumption or fed on grass, hay or silage – the production of which could be supplemented by converting golf courses, parks and motorway verges. We could also reintroduce swill feeding for pigs (swill comprises food waste from restaurants, shops and supermarkets). This practice carries with it the risk of disease spread and was stopped in the UK after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, however if we were not importing food the risk of importing disease would be reduced. Actions such as these are within living memory – during the Second World War, potato consumption increased from 5 million tonnes to 10 million tonnes and 6.5 million acres of unused land was ploughed, an area bigger than Wales.
As a last resort, grains currently destined for breweries and distilleries could be used to make bread. This might save 1 million tonnes of cereal but the impact would be catastrophic, whiskey brings £4.3 billion annually to the UK, and much more by way of pleasure!
The prospect of Britain without strong trading partners and without an efficient internal agricultural industry may seem fanciful but our separation from our substantially biggest market makes it tangibly less so!
Professor Quintin McKellar is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire. He is a distinguished researcher with interests in the pharmacology of anti-infective and anti-inflammatory drugs in domestic animals. The University of Hertfordshire is investing in research and development to ensure food sustainability in the future.
This article was originally published on REACTION. Read the original article.