Farming feature: A homegrown diet

William Hudson is an agricultural environmentalist who looked at why we need diverse farming economy

William Hudson is an agricultural environmentalist who looked at why we need diverse farming economy with big and small businesses. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

Agricultural environmentalist WILLIAM HUDSON looks at the need to keep a diverse farming sector with smaller farms. He had to give up his own small arable and soft fruit farm at Ardleigh, near Colchester, five or six years ago because of economic pressures and now lives near Diss.

What is food security? Why do we need it and do we need more small businesses in the countryside?

Food security is part of the current ambient rhetoric. It is constantly made reference to in government reports.

Food security is thought to be good thing, something that we should strive towards. It is felt that food security is part of the sustainability and resilience that is required in today’s food system.

The Treasury and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has held the idea that as long as we are wealthy then we can simply import food from countries who are willing to sell it to us. The issue of wealth could change. Certainly there are problems when looking at some of the sustainability issues that might make indigenous food more environmentally friendly than imported.

Tomatoes, for example, when grown in the UK with heat and including the carbon footprint of the glasshouse, is producing more carbon than growing tomatoes in Spain at ambient temperatures and trucking them up to the UK. Food miles are often seen as the biggest issue when importing food into the UK yet fertiliser manufacture accounts for 30% of carbon produced in food growing while food miles are only 2%.

We then have to look at efficiency of growing our food. Are big farms better than small ones? Do large farms take money out of the rural economy and people out of the rural society? Would it be a good idea to have more smaller farms employing more people from surrounding communities?

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This all implies that current practice should change in order to meet a subjective vision that we seem to have collectively arrived at. Vested interest of large companies must also be taken into account. Pesticides, once seen as wonderful, are often to be found to cause some sort of problem to our health or the environment.

The business of selling pesticides has been extremely profitable for some businesses and they do not want to see these marketplace taken from them. Fertiliser businesses would see a drop in business if the raw ingredients are hard to get and got more expensive. We have already see some fertilisers go up in price tenfold because we are running out of these commodities.

So companies with vested interested in supplying the agricultural establishment will be reluctant to change when to change will seriously effect their profitability. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

So is food security the ability for us to be able to produce our own food?

Certainly we could produce more food in the UK. We could also reduce imports by producing more food at the beginning and end of production seasons. The quality may be a bit variable and even supply may not be so reliable but we could significant reduce imports if we did not take for granted the standards that we are now used to from quality control from the supermarkets.

We have all heard of the bent carrot story but the supermarkets are there to make money for their shareholders and their researchers know what sells best and how to maximise their profit but that is what they do. We may accuse the multiples of plunder and over-control but until society or government or both change the rules and expect something different from the supermarkets then that is how they will behave.

So is there a moral imperative for the multiples to take responsibility for issues of food security? Should we be asking them to encourage small local growers who can deliver directly into stores? Maybe this just answers the subjective desire that many of us now have to know where our food came from and to know that it was produced close to where it will be consumed.

Society outside the cities needs to have businesses that provide money to put back into a rural economy. Imported food gets paid for in another country how can that be useful to us. Some of the margin rubs off to transport businesses and marketing agents but the main part goes back to the country where the food was grown or processed. We now have to consider more, as our understanding of these matters increases, the implications of taking another country’s nutrients and water. The embedded issues go further than carbon. One cup of coffee, for example, takes 125 litres of water to produce.

Food security is about taking back some control of our own food supply. This is sometimes confused with food sovereignty. We must consider that there will always to a place for some imported food.

There will always be supply problems brought about by weather and other unforeseen problems but we should not rely on other countries for our staples. That may mean changing our diet but change is not necessarily bad, it is just change. Foods that have now become commonplace because it is possible to supply and therefore fulfil a business opportunity may not be good for the environment, the rural economy and society.

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