Food is the Future

We’ve nothing against townies. Many of us live in towns. Some exiles even live, in Babylonish captivity, in the very heart of London itself. But as Wessex Regionalists, we all know better than to believe that food grows itself on supermarket shelves.

If only that realisation were universally shared. London, which grows next to nothing itself, is part fed by the farmers of Wessex (in the future, perhaps fuelled by them too). You wouldn’t think so, judging by press coverage of planning matters. According to Richard Morrison in the Times this month, Green Belt is “unused land”, waiting to be built upon. His article adds that Gordon Brown’s three million new homes will only increase urbanisation from 11% to 13% of UK land area. But what if 11% is too much already for one of the most crowded countries in the world? If 2% of land is lost from agriculture every ten years, how long before we run short of food?

It’s true that some farmland is indeed unused, and we pay farmers £4 billion a year in subsidies, including subsidies not to farm. That’s an expensive insurance policy but it’s the price of keeping options open for the longer term. Forever is a very long time and getting farmland back once it’s built on is no easy task. In the nature of things, it’s the sites picked for expansion around towns and villages in the river valleys that tend to be on the best and most versatile land.

The question we should be asking is why the money is spent not to grow food rather than spent to grow it. DEFRA figures show that the UK’s overall self-sufficiency in food fell dramatically in the period 1995-2006, from 73.7% to just 58.1%. We now import 70% of the apples eaten in the UK (a majority even during the UK apple season). Over 60% of apple orchards – many in Wessex – have been destroyed in the last 30 years. Between 1995 and 2005 domestic production of cheese (another traditional Wessex product) fell by 7% to just 63% of cheese consumed. The worst case scenario calculates that, at the current rate of contraction in food self-sufficiency, the UK could be importing all its food by 2051.

Radical changes to the CAP have been pushed harder and implemented more incompetently in England than anywhere else in the EU. Even the Government does its best to avoid buying food produced in Britain. Why? Because agricultural ‘reform’ is part of the drive for globalisation, an economic system that cannot last. A sustainable farming policy would be seeking a Wessex self-sufficient in basic nutrition. So what, if others can grow and transport food across the planet for less? They simply won’t be able to once oil prices escalate. Meanwhile, intensive farming is destroying soil fertility worldwide, at a time when global population is increasing by 75 million a year. That’s another Bristol every two days.

Official statistics for Wessex aren’t readily available, but figures for the South West published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the NFU make startling reading. The South West is more than usually dependent on agricultural enterprise, with 14% of businesses in this category (6% in England as a whole). Agriculture contributes 1.2% of the South West’s GVA (Gross Value Added), compared to 0.7% in England as a whole. The South West’s agricultural output is three times that of Wales, which has its own rural affairs minister to fight for it. Wessex, as part of England, doesn’t. (In a 2001 report on food and farming, FoE recommended that decision-making on subsidy payments should be devolved to regional level. The recent fiasco over delays in making payments certainly suggests that central government lacks the necessary competence.)

The South West and South East together account for over half the organic land and organic producers in England, with the South West well in the lead. Farmers’ markets were invented in Bath in 1997. A 2002 survey found that food sold at farmers’ markets in the South West was on average 35% cheaper than food of similar quality in supermarkets in the same towns. Meanwhile, in Winchester, it was found that shops reported 30% greater takings on days when there was a farmers’ market. Research by the Institute of Grocery Distribution shows that 70% of people in Britain want to be able to buy local or regional foods, while in a 2005 survey by BMRB over half considered food and drink to be one of the three main factors defining their regional identity. Yet food miles – the average distance from field to plate – have doubled in 20 years.

The closer one gets to London, the more the economics turns real farms into hobby farms and horse paddocks, especially now that the latter are eligible for subsidy. In the South East, 73% of holdings have diversified out of agriculture, substantially the highest figure in England, where the average is 50% and even the South West – the home of agri-tourism – only reaches 45%. Diversification accounts for 46% of South East farm income (double the national average) and nearly 60% of this income is accounted for by buildings let for non-farming use. These are options not available to farmers in parts of Wessex more remote from London.

There is a complacent tendency to write off farming, which shows in the attitude of some local authorities, only too keen to view allotments and smallholdings as assets to be sold rather than as a continuing service to the community. A long-term view is needed if the skills base is to be ready to meet future home demand. A loss of critical mass in any sector is always difficult to regain.

Making the connections is also vital. Attempts to tackle obesity are hampered by the economics of the food industry itself. Adding value to agricultural produce, to enable it to compete, often means producing highly processed foods with much poorer nutritional value than the basic foodstuffs. Then there are the consequences of animal diseases and drug and pesticide residues to consider. We all pay for the higher NHS costs that result from false economies. And the final chapter of the GM story may not be written for generations to come. Confused thinking has become the norm. Why is real food separately labelled as ‘organic’? Surely it’s the artificial food that should bear the truth-telling labels, if not indeed the Wessex Government health warnings?

Wessex Regionalists demand trustworthy, wholesome food from a farm system that promotes regional self-reliance, landscape quality, bio-diversity and good animal and soil husbandry. Fundamental reform of global trade rules, European policies, UK decision-making structures, land economics and the accountability of institutions ranging from schools to supermarkets are all prerequisites. Recognising the barriers to this, we argue for unilateral action wherever practical.

Food is the future. Our future in an increasingly uncertain world. So let’s think carefully about the often-contradictory pressures we place on those whose livelihood it is. And before it’s too late, let’s stop destroying the very land that grows it.

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