Since the controversial decision to leave the European Union in June 2016, the topic of food production has been lost in the subsequent storm of media coverage, overlooked in favour of more attention-grabbing headlines. However, the quiet surrounding the topic should not be taken to mean that it is less worthy of our concern. On the contrary, food production and food security are some of the most uncertain and precarious issues we face once we leave the EU.
70% of the food the UK imports comes from within the EU, and the EU in turn is the destination of 60% of Britain’s agricultural exports. Such a dependency has deep implications for after 2019. In a report by the Science Policy Research Unit, professor Tim Lang described the lack of attention paid to post-Brexit agriculture as “bizarre” and “an astonishing act of political irresponsibility” Leaving the EU will require the UK create its own agricultural policy for the first time, but first we must decide what we want our farms to look like.
Many debates over the agricultural future of the UK focus on whether we should engage in “land-sparing” (intensive farming methods which produce high volumes over a small acreage, supposedly leaving more land untouched for wildlife) or land-sharing ones (extensive production, which attempts to farm in a more “eco-friendly” way, one compatible with wildlife). In reality this debate is, like many other dichotomies, too simplistic.
A wheat harvest. Credit: BigStock
High yields should not be the only goal
One of the key arguments against extensive agriculture is that it is simply not productive enough to feed our current population. So, is increased production the answer to food security? We already produce enough food globally to feed the world, yet the FAO suggests that over a third is lost or wasted worldwide . The argument that organic methods of agriculture would be unable to produce as much per hectare as conventional ones is, depending on the actual disparity between the two, not necessarily the end of the discussion. Measures that plug gaps in the distribution system and reduce food waste could do much to mitigate the problem. There is also debate over whether lower-input forms of agriculture are actually less productive than intensive forms, an argument which depends in part on how you define productivity and efficiency in the first place.
Additionally, arguments based on yields alone often fail to incorporate the entire food system in their scope; where do our continuously depleting inputs come from? If the UK were to increase agricultural intensification and become more self-sufficient in terms of food production, this does not necessarily make it more food secure. Agricultural intensification does not usually refer only to agricultural methods which produce high yields, it almost invariably refers to methods which use high levels of exogenous fossil-fuel inputs to achieve these yields. How secure is our food supply really if it collapses in the face of spiking oil prices or supply chain failures? Surely we should be working towards a food system that is resilient and well-equipped for a petrochemical-scarce future. Even if one argues that there is no near shortage of oil or gas, we must ask ourselves whether that is a good enough reason on its own to support the expansion of such an energetically demanding production system, especially in the face of climate change. The finite nature of fossil fuels is not the only reason to pursue a “greener” future.
Sheep grazing in an agroforestry system. Credit: Kevin Waldie, 2017
Is land-sparing the way forward?
The UK currently devotes 70% of its landscapes to agriculture of some kind. If through agricultural intensification we could reduce this percentage to, for example 40%, can we really say that we have a net ecological benefit if the management of this land were to be ecologically and climatically damaging? Even if we doubled the number of protected areas, could we really call ourselves a progressive and “green” nation if the majority of our landscapes are still being continuously degraded? This risks creating islands of wildlife isolated in an otherwise inhospitable ocean. We should be wary of encouraging practices that purport to “leave space for nature”, but are designed to exclude all except the desired forms of life on their own territories. The RSPB reports a 48% decline in farmland bird species in the UK since 1970. 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost since WW2. Some research suggests that this is related to the startling decline in pollinator numbers, which has huge implications for, ironically, food production. This is due in part to the exact intensification of the farm environment that some ecologists are supporting. Some of the UK’s most iconic species are directly associated with the traditional farming landscapes they co-evolved with over hundreds, if not thousands, of years; once the old ways of farming go, so too do the animals.
A further problem is that talks of increasing production often fail to address other key aspects of the issue such as governance, sustainability, waste, and poverty are simply not productive. Scientist David Abson describes this problem well when he states “If a lack of production is not the primary cause of food insecurity, then an increase in production cannot be the primary solution.”
A fusion future
That said, in the spirit of not falling into false dichotomies, we should avoid making the debate one of supporting either the further intensification of agriculture, or “ecological” agriculture. Many specialist species, including those we might hope to reintroduce into the UK such as the lynx or wolf, simply don’t thrive in human-occupied environments. We need the protected areas land-sparers advocate for, but measures which essentially sacrifice some areas in the name of sparing others are not the way forward. As with most things, there are trade-offs involved, and the most plausible production scenario will likely involve some fusion of the two. For example, it is very likely we will still be growing food using synthetic fertilizers for decades to come, but perhaps these can be manufactured using solar or wind power rather than gas, and perhaps we can develop new ways for it to be applied less wastefully and with minimal pollution. Perhaps industrial arable fields can begin utilizing legume crop covers, make use of biological pest control, and include wildflower borders for insects and birds.
Our current agricultural system does not reflect the environmental and human needs of the world we live in. Regardless of our thoughts on Brexit, it provides a chance for the UK the chance to make a major sea-change in terms of how we produce food, for good or evil. We should take it as an opportunity to implement a more progressive, equitable, and sustainable food system, not continue with business-as-usual.