Farming Comment: It’s time to reconsider our food security, says TFA chief executive George Dunn

The row over some British retailers sourcing lamb from New Zealand and Australia over the Easter per

The row over some British retailers sourcing lamb from New Zealand and Australia over the Easter period may be a precursor to a wider debate, says TFA chief executive George Dunn. - Credit:

The row over some British retailers sourcing lamb from New Zealand and Australia over the Easter period is more than just a jingoistic storm in a teacup, but perhaps a precursor to a wider debate that needs to take place about the extent to which we need to reconsider issues of food security and food self-sufficiency in the UK.

George Dunn, Tenant Farmers' Association chief executive

George Dunn, Tenant Farmers' Association chief executive - Credit: Archant

Of course, the two are not synonymous and famously, in 2005, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Treasury stated, in stark terms, in their joint vision for the Common Agricultural Policy that “domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security” and that free and open trade was the real route to the achievement of food security.

Most within the farming community rightly considered this to be a low point in its relations with Government.

The Labour administration redeemed itself just five years later when Hillary Benn, the then DEFRA Secretary of State, launched Food 2030, the first Government food security strategy since the Attlee administration at the end of the Second World War. Food 2030 highlighted food security as being as important as energy security to the UK and that as a nation we needed to produce more food sustainably. Of course, the May General Election of that year meant that this strategy barely got off the starting blocks before it was confined to the burgeoning shelves of the almost rans.

DEFRA statistics tell us that currently the UK is around 76% self-sufficient in indigenous food and 62% in all food. However, taking into consideration exports, UK production supplied only around 54% of the food needed to satisfy domestic demand. The questions we need to ask ourselves are firstly, are we content with the situation and secondly, if not what do we want to do about it. There is also a third question which is if we are content with the current self-sufficiency ratio, at what level should we begin to worry and what then should we do? These are questions that have not been explored for some time.

In a world which is becoming increasingly more insecure both through the rise of global terrorism and the straining of international relationships, maybe it’s time to look at the appropriateness of increasing our self-sufficiency ratio. We mustn’t forget that it was in the wake of war that we last focused to any serious extent on increasing food self-sufficiency and it has been a driving factor of the CAP for over 50 years. Surely we need to learn the lessons of the past and pre-empt the possibility of disruptions in food supply?

Coupled with these concerns are worries about food standards, environmental costs and animal welfare objectives which lead us to question the sense of simply relying upon price as the factor that determines the rationality of our decisions in securing food.

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We all want to ensure that we are consuming food produced to the highest standards with minimal negative impacts on the environment and without causing animals to suffer through poor welfare. However our ability to discriminate in relation to these factors within a trading environment governed by the World Trade Organisation is slim. Food security is important to our nation and if our standards mean anything it’s time we favoured domestic production over imports were possible.