Fruit and veg boom needed to feed Britain
In the face of climate change, food experts call for more home-grown fruit and less grain for cattle
* Robin McKie, science editor
* guardian.co.uk, Sunday November 16 2008 00.01 GMT
* The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008
It is an image worthy of a Keats poem or a Constable landscape: great orchards bursting with fruit, fields crammed with ripening vegetables and hillsides covered with sheep and cattle.
But this is no dream of long-gone rural glories. It is a vision of the kind of countryside that Britain may need if it is to survive the impact of climate change and higher oil prices, according to leading agricultural experts.
They have warned that only a total revolution in the nation's food industry can save Britain from serious shortages of staples as world oil production peaks, the climate continues to heat up, the population grows and our dietary needs continue to evolve.
In turn that means a complete shake-up in the way we farm the countryside. At present Britain imports more than 90 per cent of the fruit it consumes.
'We face some awesome changes in the way we deal with food production,' said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London. 'For the past century we have relied on oil to produce more and more food for ourselves - mainly through the use of petroleum products to make cheap fertilisers.'
The problem is that oil is becoming more and more expensive and is also linked to dangerous emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As a result, food experts such as Lang have been pressing the government to develop a proper strategy for ensuring that Britain is able to supply itself with food for the rest of the century, but in a way that fits in with the nation's goals on climate change.
It is simply not acceptable for Britain to continue to import foodstuffs such as beans from countries like Kenya, they say. The nation needs to be self-sustaining and to do this in an environmentally friendly manner.
One key approach relies on a return to past methods of food production. The nation needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables, said Lang. 'This country produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats. That has to change. We need to consider orchard planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables.'
Nor is it acceptable that 40 per cent of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed the cattle and sheep that provide us with meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to deliver protein to the populace.
Instead cattle and pigs should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilisers for its growth. Prime land should be used to feed people directly, Lang insisted.
This point was backed by Dr David Barling of City University's Centre for Food Policy.
'The debates around what and how much food the UK should produce and import should be based upon the priorities of providing a vibrant food economy that is socially just, environmentally benign and provides for a healthy population. This is not the case currently,' he said.
Such changes in the use of the countryside have other implications, however. More people will be required to work this altered landscape while productive land will have to be protected from development. 'We are going to have to revolutionise the way we use the countryside,' said Lang.
That transformation will require a return to old ways that might be welcome but equally there could be changes that might cause upset, such as the building of more rural homes to house those needed to work there.
'We will have to face up to these challenges as well,' Lang concluded.