The food fight

“Do you not eat?” NFU president Minette Batters recently flashed back at wildlife campaigner Mark Avery after he criticised farming’s record on protecting nature.

The exchange took place on what used to be called Twitter, but which now, in its musky X-rated dotage, is rapidly descending into an international shouting match. Yet I reflected they’re both right, in a sense, following another X-change on X recently.

This came in response to a Farmers Weekly story that the prime minister is “keen to make a break from the Boris Johnson era, which he believes was too environmentally focused, to the detriment of food production”.

Hmm, let’s not revisit the Johnson era. Please. But the exchange between financier and rewilding enthusiast Ben Goldsmith and conservation-minded farmer Joe Stanley was interesting as another example of both being, in a sense, right.

Mr Goldsmith began with the dubious claim that Britain is one of the most food-secure nations on Earth. But he continued more plausibly that we need to reduce appalling levels of food waste and shift arable production from bioenergy and livestock feed to feeding humans.

“The greatest threat to our food security is the trashing of our natural environment on which all farming depends utterly,” he concluded.

Mr Stanley hit back by pointing out that, although the standard political narrative of the past 20 years has been: “we are a rich country and can import our food”, our food self-sufficiency has dropped from 80% to 60% and rationing and shortages are a possibility.

“Unless the UK wakes up to this issue, we’re heading for calamity in an unstable world,” he concluded.

To all of which I would say: “Calm down chaps (and chapess), you are all right. By and large”.

Indeed, working out how to manage our land, and how to protect it and manage it for nature and the other ecosystem services we depend on, gets ever more urgent.

There is a powerful debate underway over the future of farming which Mr Sunak’s alleged thoughts reflect. While farmers are rightly incensed about the way supermarkets and the rest of the supply chain squeeze many of their businesses to vanishing point, there is a key debate to be had over both food security and the environmental costs.

Even farming itself now has clear dividing lines. This month saw both the Oxford Farming Conference for mainstream agriculture and the Oxford Real Farming Conference for those minded to pursue agroecology.

This debate over farming methods, their impact on the environment and whether less damaging methods can still produce the food we need reflects a wider debate over the way we run capitalism. Will the fast jet of neoliberalism continue to burn through the world’s resources and ecosystems and rapidly burn everything out? Or is there a better way of running our economies which doesn’t rely on bogus “trickle-down” theories and can run more sustainably? And if there is, how do we get from here to there?

I don’t pretend to have answers, but I am absolutely certain we need to be finding answers to these questions – fast.

It is, I’m afraid, a delusion that the UK enjoys food security. We need to import a huge percentage of our food to feed a large and growing population. Our economy is weak, has a huge debt, runs at a massive current deficit, has a big balance of payment problem and has abandoned free-trade, even with our nearest neighbours.

World food production is also being hit by climate-change and conflict.

The UN’s World Food Programme estimates over 1.7 billion people have been affected by extreme weather and climate-related disasters in the past 10 years. Lack of diversity in food systems, reliance on polluting practices and conflict are all hitting food production. With the temperature suddenly rising faster, floods, droughts, wildfires and shifting weather patterns are set to make that rapidly worse.

Meanwhile conflict and potential conflict are also hitting supplies and security of supply and Russia’s dangerous invasion of Ukraine should have been a wake-up call. In 2021/2, Ukraine was the seventh largest producer of wheat in the world with 33 million tonnes – 10% of the world market. It also supplied 15% of the world’s maize, 13% of its barley and 50% of its sunflower.

Last year, Ukraine’s grain production was down by around a third. Exporting it relies on grain ships targeted by Russian attacks. Ever wondered what happened to sunflower margarine? Meanwhile, Europe’s other big grain producer is Russia itself.

Now NATO bosses are warning that a newly resurgent and rearmed Russia could be planning further moves into Europe within a decade or so. What they’re not saying is that a Trump presidency in 2025 could leave the continent vulnerable to such an attack much sooner.

So face it, food production and its effect on the environment are not subjects for siloed thinking.

We urgently need to protect our sources of food.

We need to find ways of producing food in more environmentally friendly ways.

We do need to consider how far and whether bioenergy and animal feed are a good use of arable land.

And we urgently need to protect farmland from the urban sprawl now espoused by many of our leading politicians as the answer to, er, land speculators’, developers’ and volume house builders’ profit streams.

So please everybody, stop throwing rotten vegetables at each other or sniping from behind barricades and start finding ways to square these circles.

It’s hard, but the alternatives will be much harder still.

Jon Reeds