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Food security and self-sufficiency

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By Charlotte Hawkins


The issue of food security is currently a hot topic. This is partly due to global concerns about feeding a growing population, and also due to the implications of the UK leaving the EU: only around half of our food supply comes from the UK, while around 30% is from Europe, and 20% is from the rest of the world. The concept of food security does not have a clear definition, but broadly it refers to the availability of food in the supply chain, and individuals' access to that food in both sufficient quantity and nutritional quality. This is inextricably tied in with the question of food self-sufficiency, and with Brexit looming in the near future, it hasn't been so relevant since the second world war.

Like food security, food self-sufficiency has different meanings. Some interpret it as meaning food imports equalling food exports, and others interpret it as meaning the ability of a country to feed its own people, without needing to import food at all. Fears have been voiced of fresh produce from Europe potentially waiting days at EU border controls and new import tariffs being imposed. Food waiting at borders means there is likely to be higher levels of food wastage and failures in the supply chain, and import tariffs will make food from Europe more expensive for consumers, neither of which is seen as a positive step. Also, the recent panic over the possibility of chlorinated chicken reaching British shores – currently banned within the EU due to concerns about it encouraging antibiotic resistance and being detrimental to human health – has highlighted the fact that EU regulations are often stricter than those elsewhere in the world, where economic considerations are seen to take precedence.

However, perhaps this is our opportunity to ask ourselves whether we should in fact be importing so much from the EU or further afield. For produce that cannot be grown in the UK due to our climate, it is clear we cannot manage without imports. However,  there are many foods that are freighted from Europe not because we can't grow it here, but because it is cheaper for supermarkets to buy from foreign rather than UK producers. If delays to the food supply chain and import tariffs mean that we become more self-sufficient, growing and producing more food in the UK, possibly this is no bad thing. There are many advantages to that, even if there is some short-term disruption. It would mean:

• The UK is more able to feed its own people.

• Less food miles and therefore fossil fuels are used with produce travelling long distances.

• It supports our own British agricultural economy and encourages a rural landscape.

• Produce could reach the consumer quicker, enabling it to be picked riper and taste fresher.

• Price fluctuations due to seasonality would encourage consumers to eat food at its best and most nutritious.

This all seems positive, although unfortunately it is not quite so straight-forward. Superficially the environmental gains would seem obvious, but in many cases, it has been proven to be less environmentally costly to land-freight fresh produce from Europe than grow it in heated polytunnels in the UK outside of our natural growing season. It is clear that air-freighting asparagus from Peru or green beans from Kenya is hugely environmentally damaging, both to the local environment and water supply, and also in the use of fossil fuels. However, imports from the rest of the world also include foods such as tropical fruits and dried foods which are nearly always sea freighted: the most environmentally friendly mode of transport of all. While in an ideal world it would be better if we all stuck to eating British produce in season, realistically few consumers would be prepared to radically change their diets and go without foods to which they have become accustomed. This inevitably necessitates extending the UK growing season or importing from hotter climes. These are issues for which there are no clear answers, but need to be considered when thinking about our food supply in the future.

Despite various predictions, nobody really knows what is going to happen to our food supply post-Brexit, but we do know that supermarkets do not currently take these environmental or ethical concerns into account. One thing shoppers can be assured of at True Food is that short of growing your own produce at home, the food available has been supplied in the most environmentally friendly way possible. There is an emphasis on seasonal produce, which is supplied from the UK whenever it is feasible to do so, and also a strong emphasis on British products that have undergone any form of processing, such as meat, dairy and dried and tinned goods. Produce that has to be imported is done so in an environmentally friendly way, and also attention is paid to the living and working conditions of the people who have produced it. Yet another good reason to shop at True Food!