Just two countries, Spain and the Netherlands, account for 69% of imported fresh vegetables, for example. Meanwhile, the UK depends on animal feed imports for livestock production, particularly in the poultry and pig sectors, with the bulk of soya beans coming from Argentina and Brazil.
A study on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK food system, published in the journal Nature Food, described the UK as “dangerously dependent” on Spain and the Netherlands, and the UK’s lack of diversity in sourcing products was a point of “acute vulnerability”.
“Securing greater diversity of international suppliers has been identified as a priority by the UK government, particularly in the context of Brexit,” said Dr Oliver Scanlan of the Oxford University Research Group’s sustainable security programme in a 2019 briefing paper. “UK food supply chains currently have limited direct exposure to the closure of global supply choke-points. This may change, should diversifying imports away from western European suppliers succeed.
“Regardless, the UK is as exposed as the rest of the world to food price volatility and potential long-term food price inflation.”
A changing climate and with it a reduction in the amount of arable land available is furrowing brows. “British agriculture has a little bit of a competitive advantage over other parts of the world because our predominantly Atlantic climate is why we are a green and pleasant land,” says Jonathan Scurlock, National Farmers’ Union chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change. “Generally, we are less hard hit by droughts and floods than some of our competitors elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, potato farmers who find their fields under water for a week will have their produce rotting in the ground. Agricultural produce, when it’s outdoors, is vulnerable, and the same goes for livestock.”
Land use changes ahead?
That vulnerability may redraw the UK’s agricultural map. Most of the UK’s arable farming is in the East and South East of England. Livestock pasture and other uses are more common further north and west. Unchecked climate change – the 5°C warming predicted by 2100 if the world’s carbon emissions continue to rise at current rates – could drive crop-growing North and West, according to research by the University of Exeter.
As well as being significantly warmer, the UK would have a predicted 140mm less rainfall each growing season – April to September – with more acute dry periods in the South East.
Of the 2019 research, Dr Paul Ritchie, a University of Exeter researcher, said: “Britain is relatively cool and damp, so a warmer and drier growing season is generally expected to increase arable production. However, by 2100, unmitigated climate change would see a decline in arable farming in the East and South East.
“Crops could still be grown with the aid of irrigation, but this would involve either storing large quantities of winter rainfall or transporting water from wetter parts of the country. The amount of water required would be vast, representing a major challenge for UK agriculture.”
Rethinking our diet
In short, climate will change the way we use land. This presents huge changes in the long term. Gary McFarlane, director for Northern Ireland at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, argues UK food security is fragile at best. The country needs to revert to seasonal eating and “do without strawberries at Christmas”, he says.
The best place to start would be a sustainable diet of red meat and poultry on one day a week each, with the other five dedicated to fruit and vegetables, he believes.
However, with around 60% of UK agricultural land not suitable for cropping, this poses a challenge to UK farmers. To reduce emissions and respond to the public’s environmental concerns, farmers will increasingly need to consider climate-friendly farming techniques such as rotational grazing, crop rotation, using organic fertilisers and legumes in grassland to sequester carbon, and using data-driven technology to reduce inputs and boost efficiencies.
The new Agriculture Bill also emphasises the need for changes to land use. As a key principle of the legislation, farmers and land managers will receive “public money for public goods” such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.
“Extreme weather in this country or in other parts of the world all impacts on food production sooner rather than later,” McFarlane says. “UK agricultural produce is geared towards red meat, dairy and poultry, much of it exported. When you see how reliant it is on fossil fuels, how our diet is in terms of our health and planetary health, we are heading for disaster.
“It needs radical change. Tinkering around the edges won’t work in the longer term.”
This means the UK needs to think about “what we want from the land in the first place” says Lang, adding: “Is it for the rich as a hedge against uncertainty? Is it for the common people? For housing or building on? For food production? For woods? For water? For carbon sequestration? For culture and amenity? For the view? For tourism?
“The shape of that mix is a public issue which so far we seemingly cannot decide. But climate change will force us to decide. Out of the UK’s 17.5 million hectares used for agriculture, only 168,000 hectares are used for horticulture. This is bonkers. It’s time to start rebuilding the connection between people, land, food and health. It’s a win-win.”