This from the inspirational The Land magazine…
Back in 2007 The Land drafted a “back of an envelope job” calculating the ability of Britain to meet its food needs from our available agricultural land. In Can Britain Feed Itself? we evaluated six land use scenarios ranging from “chemical with livestock” to “vegan permaculture” and concluded that yes, Britain could indeed feed a population of 60.6 million people with varying degrees of flexibility – but only if we ate less meat.
Five years on and Can Britain Feed Itself? has been quoted by papers, pressure groups and commentators as the Food Security debate has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. What’s remarkable about our original article is that it was the first attempt in nearly 30 years to address this question in print – and that since it was published neither Labour or the Coalition have felt inspired to follow it up with any kind of publicly funded evaluation.
More remarkable still is that since 2007 we’ve seen not only a global recession leading to the highest rate of UK unemployment for nearly two decades, but also the sharpest spike in food prices in living memory. Faced with a labour surplus and persistent doubts about national food security it might have been pertinent for someone to ask the question – could farming once again become a major employer in the UK? And could we even support a more resilient agriculture as a result?
Regrettably, the question doesn’t seem to have been asked, at least not publicly, in the halls of power and so in the absence of anyone else stepping forward to take the initiative The Land has turned over the envelope and had another go.
Admittedly there are limitations to this kind of theoretical exercise, not least the variables involved in multiplying yields and labour demand from a sample population to regional and national levels. As with Simon Fairlie’s original article the results of Can Britain Farm Itself? should be regarded only as a rustic guide to what could be achieved, given more time and attention than can be offered by a busy farmer in the throes of the growing season.
For a country which devotes 80 percent of its land area to the business of producing food, the British public are remarkably casual about the details of how and what we farm. A 2011 survey by the National Trust found that consumers rated their knowledge of farming at 4.5 out of 10, with two out of every five adults in the UK unable to say what an arable farm was – and one in six who couldn’t identify wheat as the main ingredient in flour. (1)
This lack of awareness has traditionally been interpreted as a lack of interest by both the mainstream media and the government who have come to regard farming as an “industry” like any other, as opposed to the culture associated with growing our food. Details like farm yields, working pay and conditions – and whether it’s been good season or not – tend to be relegated to the pages of the farming press. They are rarely discussed in the newspapers or even in the pub. As a result we know more about the salaries and livelihoods of our Premiership footballers than about the people putting food on our plates.
For those who make a living out of producing food, however, these details are acutely relevant. And for those who simply consume, they are perhaps more relevant than you might imagine. Whether or not you share the opinion of Ewen Cameron, the former Chair of Natural England, that “Britain is only nine meals away from anarchy”, it is a simple fact that the details of how and what we farm deserve our attention – and this includes an evaluation of the labour, skills and knowledge needed to feed ourselves into the future.