Britain should grow more crops to avoid global food crisis, say MPs


The Guardian UK
By John Vidal, Environment editor
July 21, 2009

Britain should grow far more fruit, vegetables and cereals to help feed the extra 2.7 billion people there may be in the world within 40 years, said a powerful committee of MPs in a report published today.

Michael Jack, who chairs the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee, said: "If people go hungry then political stability goes out of the window. This is a key lesson that government must learn from last year’s global food price rises when some countries ran short of food. What happened showed just how fine the line is between full supermarket shelves and empty stomachs."

It is estimated that world food supplies would have to double in the next 40 years to feed a population of nine billion, while at the same time, farmers must cope with climate change, oil price rises and new plant and animal diseases.

But the government has taken the supply of food in the UK largely for granted, said the committee. "Doing nothing will be morally unacceptable at a time when a fundamental shift in thinking [about agriculture] is required. The UK must not bury its head in the sand", said the MPs.

A combination of climate change, the increasing use of food for biofuels, changing food tastes in countries such as China, and growing populations all raised food prices 13.9% in Britain in 2008 and to unprecedented levels worldwide, said the report.

"There is a growing awareness among governments in developed countries that a food system that has appeared to work well since the second world war may not continue to do so," said the MPs.

But they said that Britain should not try to become food self-sufficient because that could make us even more vulnerable to supply shortages. A single disease could devastate staple foods and it might be seen as to exemplify an "every country for itself" approach, said the MPs.

Such a self-interested approach is already leading to land-grabbing in countries short of food and could destabilise the global market in food, they said. "We are concerned that the government is not taking this phenomenon sufficiently seriously," the report noted.

Instead they believe that Britain should carry on sourcing food from many countries. In 2006, 26 countries accounted for 90% of the UK’s food – the largest producer was the Netherlands, responsible for 13% of our supplies.

But the UK could do far more to improve homegrown food production, said the MPs: "Only 10% of the fruit consumed in the UK by value is grown here. Apple orchards have reduced by nearly 33% in just 10 years and less than a third of the apples eaten here are grown here".

In addition, the MPs were concerned that the government was advising people to eat fish twice a week when it was not clear that the marine environment could sustain that level. "Industry and government have a duty to encourage consumers to try less well known types of fish and shellfish," it said.

The report called for more research money, particularly into GM and other hi-tech food production. "This challenge will not be met unless government properly safeguards our agricultural science base. It must heed the words of Prof Kell, the chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and put in an extra £100m [towards food security relevant research]. We believe that the potential of GM should be explored further. The government should make an effort to negotiate a ceasefire on the destruction of GM crops," said the MPs.

Last year, the influential thinktank Chatham House called on the government to take urgent steps to revive Britain’s agricultural sector to avoid a major food crisis in the future.

This article was corrected on 23rd July 2009. The quote from Prof Kell had referred to "GM research". This has been amended to "food security relevant research".

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