I almost burst out laughing when I read a recent academic study exploring which countries are best located to withstand social and environmental shocks ahead.1 I was amused that the UK was favourably judged, alongside New Zealand (top), Iceland, and Ireland. The criteria were sound, using measures such as food growing potential, vulnerability, carrying capacity, climate melt-down exposure, indigenous energy supply, and national level of discussion.
I wasn’t surprised four island nations were highly rated. Few people think of Iceland as potentially food self-sufficient but its volcanic geysers offer unlimited hot water to heat greenhouse production. New Zealand has a relatively benign climate and with a small population, it could feed itself well. The UK has vast and rising renewable energy, and under-utilised land. Ireland too.
So why did I initially laugh at reading the study singling out the UK? (Mirth doesn’t happen much over data in my work, I assure you. Conviviality among colleagues and students, yes, but about the state of agri-food policy, hmm. Quite rare.)
At present, most assessments think the UK is badly prepared and seriously under-performing. We only produce 55% of our food.2 A country that produces this little is surely not in a good place to withstand shock. We waste a quarter of food.3 We import huge amounts, with a widening trade deficit.4 We pollute soil and rivers; after some years of improvement, this is flat-lining or worsening.5 Agri-food is endlessly criticised for the loss of biodiversity and wildlife.6 We eat so badly that diet is a, if not the major cause of premature death.7 85% of UK land is used to produce food for animals, as the recent National Food Strategy showed.8
That litany, alas, is why I laughed (with a hint of despair, you’ll not be surprised to note.) But this is also why the study is important. It highlights the gap between the UK’s food potential and where the UK actually is. We could and should be doing far more. At present, there’s much rhetoric, some experimentation but slow intervention. Collectively, we are sleep-walking into trouble.
Here’s where gardeners become the good news. Everything points to the importance of horticulture. There’s overwhelming evidence from both health and environmental sciences that a mainly plant-oriented diet is most sustainable. 9 Horticulture uses less water, land, space and pollutes less than animal-focussed food systems.
Let’s be clear. The Meteorological Office and Hadley Centre just reported that climate change is not in the future for the UK but already here.10 The combination of higher temperatures, flash tropical-style bouts of intense rain, and flooding will be the norm not the exception.
In July, the London Government published the long-awaited National Food Strategy. I urge you to read it.8 This is actually an English strategy but since England towers over the other UK constituent parts, what England does matters for the UK (and beyond). There is much which makes sense. Although I tried to persuade the NFS team to back a commitment to grow more here, the report was shy on the issue. Henry Dimbleby referenced me and my arguments but ducked making it a core recommendation. One can perhaps understand yet regret why. It’s delicate politics.
In my book Feeding Britain, I showed how the UK had 80% self-sufficiency in the 1980s but has allowed this to slide. 11 As a rich country, to buy food we could grow, rather than bothering to invest in people, skills and infrastructure to maintain or improve home production, suggests policy blindness plus practical arrogance. The context is changing, however.
The UK cannot sensibly grow pineapples or bananas but much which is imported could be just as well grown here. As the study which amused me showed, tough criteria for planning the future already exist. We gardeners must see what we do not just as pleasure and sound land use but also as building social resilience. A well-skilled society is essential alongside ending ecological distortion. Happiness and health must narrow the gap between the UK’s potential and our weaker reality.
1. King N, Jones A. An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity’. Sustainability 2021;13(15) doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/su13158161 [published Online First: 21 July 2021]
2. Defra. Origin of Food Consumed in the UK 2019. Table 3.1 in Food statistics pocketbook. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/food-statistics-pocketbook/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-global-and-uk-supply. London: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2020.
3. WRAP. Food surplus and waste in the UK – key facts. Swindon: WRAP, 2021.
4. Defra, Statistics OfN. Food Statistics in your pocket: global and UK supply (updated March 3 2020). Table 3.1 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/food-statistics-pocketbook/food-statistics-in-your-pocket-global-and-uk-supply. London Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2020.
5. Bevan J. The state of our waters: the facts. Environment Agency blog. 2 October.https://environmentagency.blog.gov.uk/2020/10/02/the-state-of-our-waters-the-facts/. 2020
6. Hayhow DB, Eaton MA, Stanbury AJ, et al. State of Nature 2019. Sandy: The State of Nature partnership, 2019.
7. Public Health England. The Burden of Disease in England compared with 22 peer countries - A report for NHS England, 2020.
8. Dimbleby H. National Food Strategy: Independent Review - The Plan. London: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2021.
9. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet 2019;393(10170):447-92. [published Online First: 16 January]
10. Kendon M, McCarthy M, Jevrejeva S, et al. State of UK Climate Report. International Journal of Climatology 2021;41(S2):1-76. doi: 10.1002/joc.7285 [published Online First: 28 July ]
11. Lang T. Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. London: Pelican 2020.