Food insecurity and the climate crisis are grounds to reframe thinking around land in the UK

This post is by the journalist and author Peter Hetherington.

We are reaching a pivotal moment, a crunch time for food security in a UK which produces barely 60 per cent of the crops it needs. An acute shortage of both HGV drivers, and people prepared to pick veg and fruit (EU nationals now largely denied access to Brexit Britain) has, once again, exposed the fragility of just in time delivery to supermarkets.  It’s a system developed for car assembly plants but ill-suited to the vagaries of food distribution across long distances.

Food security is becoming a bigger issue
Talk of a food crisis is not wide off the mark. In the world’s sixth largest economy, with one of the largest farmed areas in Europe – around 70 per cent of our land – crops are rotting in fields because of labour shortages.  The result? Rather than growing more, and 40 years’ ago we produced 80 per cent of our food, self sufficiency will drop further. We will have to import more, not less, from the EU, which is why the government, amid warnings of empty shelves, has again delayed implementation of Brexit border controls on EU produce entering Britain. The EU largely fills our food gap.

The warning signs were already there when Covid-19 struck early in 2020, briefly emptying supermarket shelves. At a stroke, vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meat – and, of course, toilet rolls – briefly disappeared. Consumers instead turned to alternative suppliers: the myriad smaller scale food growing co-ops, and other local ‘field to fork’ producers with direct links to consumers. Many of these producers couldn’t cope with the demand. They rationed. They want to expand, if only the incentives had been available. But ministers have turned a blind eye. Food security isn’t a priority.

There is potential to support smaller growers
There is another way.  Addressing it depends on treasuring, nurturing and, where geography, geology and soil allow, farming that most basic, life sustaining resource: our land, to produce more food. This means raising fundamental questions about the use, abuse, ownership and potential of land, and supporting those smaller scale growers, sidelined by the EU’s outgoing subsidy regime, with potential to expand to increase production. But more measures are needed.

Above all else, the government has a primary responsibility to keep us safe and secure. That means providing food security and building resilience into a fragile distribution system.  It means growing more food on the three quarters of farmland that is either devoted to cattle and sheep or to providing crops to feed livestock. Most in the farming industry feel an emerging Environmental Land Management scheme in England, or ELMs – which will compensate farmers for enhancing biodiversity and storing carbon – will hinder rather than help food production. Some argue that progressive farming, without harmful fertilisers and insecticides, and minimal ploughing, can work in harmony with nature.

As it is, the UK is ill-prepared in two critical areas: feeding 68 million people and preparing for the climate emergency.

Take just one example of our regression. From being a stable home producer, say 40 years’ ago, when we grew enough food to feed ourselves for 306 days each year, we’ve now slumped significantly to 233 days. Look closely you discover that the collapse of a once vibrant horticulture industry has left us only 23 per cent self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, with the Netherlands and Spain filling the gap.  Side stepping this issue by arguing that other countries can feed us if we slump further, such as Australia and the Americas, as some in the government (and others influencing it) argue, is surely a cop out, an abnegation of responsibility.

There is no resilience in the food system
In short, the UK is beset by food insecurity; there’s a mismatch between need and land use. The government has opted out of one vital responsibility: feeding the nation. There’s no resilience in the food system.

We need reminding that governments in the last century once intervened in two areas. First, they acquired land, sometimes compulsorily, through ground breaking land settlement legislation in the Highlands 100 years ago, which provided thousands of new crofts, or smallholdings (still on the statute book), and measures in England created a Land Settlement Association (abolished in 1980) whose smallholdings once produced much of our salad crop and county council farms in England and Wales, which are still operating at a much reduced level, with around 200,000 acres overall.

Second, they legislated to curb tax evasion. That was 111 years’ ago, in a ‘Peoples’ Budget’, when the level of inheritance tax was doubled amid screams from large landowners. Have we learned nothing? Today, speculation in land, often by those with little interest in farming, is driven by both exploiting inheritance and capital gains tax alongside the penchant of the aristocracy and the wealthy to create ‘tax-efficient’ family trusts to shelter billions in offshore tax havens.

The debate around land should be reframed
We need to reframe the debate about land and the way it’s used, from this starting point: the need for a cohesive strategy, across government, both to build resilience into our food system, from growers and producers to retailers while, at the same time, addressing the climate emergency.

This means redesigning the taxation system to abolish relief from inheritance and capital gains tax. A recently retired head of HMRC says the current tax breaks serve the UK badly.

It also means obliging new owners of land, in legal titles, to manage and farm ‘sustainably’, and in the public interest: admittedly, this is a modest step but, at least it is a statement of intent.

Finally, a new land and countryside agency should be created in England, partly modelled on both the Scottish Land Commission, created in 2016, and on former bodies in England, abolished since 2010. This is crucial to ensure a new Agriculture Act, which includes the new Environmental Land Management regime, and the new Environment Bill, aimed at restoring nature, are complementary.

Peter Hetherington’s latest book Land renewed: reworking the countryside will be published by Bristol University/Policy Press, on October 20, 2021. He is the author of Whose land is our land?  Policy Press, 2015.

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