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Self-sufficiency? Who needs it!

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FOOD security was raised as an issue during a debate on the future of farming at last year's bva Congress, where concern was expressed that the changes taking place in uk agriculture, with a shift in emphasis from food production towards environmental and other goals, could, in the event of some future crisis, endanger the nation's food supplies. Comparison was made with the need to secure energy supplies, following concerns about supplies of imported gas last winter, and reference was also made to the privations suffered as a result of food shortages both during and after the Second World War. A document published by defra just before Christmas provides a fascinating insight into the topic, not least because it seems to suggest that, as far as food security in the uk is concerned, self-sufficiency is not really an issue at all.

The document, ‘Food security and the uk: an evidence and analysis paper’,* has been produced by defra economists in the context of the Government's Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy. It notes that food security has increasingly been discussed as a matter of concern and suggests that two main developments may have triggered this. First, it says, the ‘self-sufficiency ratio’ of domestic production to consumption in the uk has been in noticeable decline over the past decade, and the ‘decoupling’ reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (cap), together with the liberalisation of trade, can be expected to reduce domestic agricultural production in the uk and Europe. Secondly, it suggests that, in the context of climate change, international energy concerns, geopolitical tensions and international terrorism, there is ‘a growing sense of the potential for disruption to food supplies in an uncertain world’.

Such unease is understandable, but the thrust of defra's paper is that discussion centred on uk self-sufficiency is ‘fundamentally misplaced and unbalanced’. Food security, it argues, does not depend on self-sufficiency. Rather, it says, for a developed country like the uk, food security is a multifaceted and complex matter, and ‘the real issues’ extend ‘beyond the uk, beyond agriculture, beyond food’.

Giving a historical perspective, it notes that food imports have been a crucial element of Britain's food supply ever since the industrial revolution. In the 20th century, food imports were severely disrupted by the two world wars but, even then, maintaining food supply involved securing the flow of imports as well as boosting home production and other interventions. The post-war drive for greater self-sufficiency was a response to wartime and post-war shortages. Subsequently, the economic, financial and geopolitical problems of the 1970s reinforced self-sufficiency thinking across Europe, with the incentives provided by the cap boosting the uk's self-sufficiency ratio. However, it says, since the 1980s, the return of globalisation and other economic trends have weakened self-sufficiency arguments, especially at national level, while the self-sufficiency ratio has declined. Current levels of self-sufficiency are, it says, ‘in fact pretty normal by historical standards’.

The defra economists argue that ‘many risks associated with food supply are likely to be dealt with by markets’ and that ‘food security might be further enhanced by removing any disproportionate barriers that prevent markets supplying the resources and infrastructure to make food supply robust, particularly in the event of severe disruptions’. Discussing the global picture, they note that poverty and subsistence agriculture are root causes of national food insecurity and that national food security is ‘vastly more pressing’ for developing countries than for the rich countries of western Europe. ‘As a rich country, open to trade, the uk is well placed to access sufficient foodstuffs through a well-functioning world market.’

The document argues that international trade enhances global food security by maximising productive potential. It further suggests that a more global approach may also be advantageous in environmental terms, and will be important as the world adapts to climate change. As far as the uk is concerned, it argues that ‘a narrow focus on agricultural self-sufficiency ignores the relevance of the whole food chain’. It accepts that modern food supply chains have vulnerabilities, but suggests that these are ‘not necessarily more risky than alternative, or historic, supply chain systems’. It points out that food security depends on energy security, and suggests that this makes energy security ‘the prior concern’.

While acknowledging that ‘it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which domestic agriculture [in the uk] does not play a substantial role’, the document argues that food security involves diversifying supply options and maintaining a flexible approach. ‘The unpredictable nature of potentially major risks to food supply suggests that maintaining food security involves a wide variety of approaches and cannot be reduced to a choice between domestic and imported production … Flexibility — in domestic agriculture, international markets and the domestic food industry — will always be crucial in building resilience to and dealing with short- and long-term threats.’

Flexibility is always important and the economists are no doubt right in suggesting that it would be wrong for the uk to put all of its eggs in one basket. However, it would be nice to feel that, somewhere in the scheme of things, they still see a place for eggs produced at home. Some might find the document thought-provoking, others might just be provoked. Nevertheless, it is well worth reading, as it gives a useful indication of where current thinking lies.

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