Farming in the UK: can we nourish ourselves from this land?

Published on 14 October 2016

Image of Elise Wach
Elise Wach

Research Advisor

The recent dispute over food prices between the UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, and the UK’s biggest food and grocery manufacturer, Unilever shines a light on a deeper problem in the global food system: our reliance on food that is grown elsewhere.

This is compounded by a drive for healthy eating in the UK which tends to heavily emphasise a tropical diet. From public messaging about your 5 a Day which almost always include pictures of bananas, to cookbooks such as The Happy Pear and I Quit Sugar which rely heavily on the use of coconut and avocados, there seem to be strong messages that that it is not possible to eat locally and ecologically-grown food while also being happy and well nourished.

Is this true?

Not in my experience.

Is all British food bland and stodgy?

When I tell people that I grow food as part of a community food project near Brighton, I often get this response, “ah so what do you grow? Potatoes and cabbages?”

Well, yes we do, and they are really tasty by the way, but we also grow well over a hundred other foods, ranging from sweet juicy figs to exquisite mizuna salads and the best pumpkins I’ve ever tasted. We also grow grains (rye, spelt, oats) in small amounts and keep a dozen chickens who lay the most delicious, nourishing eggs I have ever eaten.

All this on one acre of otherwise windy and chalky hillside near the sea (we have great hedging which protects us), with about 4-6 people leisurely working two afternoons per week, approximately the equivalent of one person’s normal work week.

Is eating local only viable for the middle classes?

While many others have been demonstrating the potential to eat well and local in Britain – from the Great British Revival BBC programme (and cookbook) to those keen on foraging the free weeds on our doorsteps, it seems to be a pretty middle class preoccupation. People on low incomes are less likely to be able to afford a veg box or buy organic, much less spend time volunteering on a community food project.

Lack of policy support is a major factor keeping local and organic foods out of reach for the wider public. Part of the problem could also be that policymakers, like consumers, are unaware of the potential for and benefits of growing nourishing food to be consumed locally. Farming policies and reports in Scotland (PDF), for example, tend to be based on the idea that animal grazing is the only viable way to farm in the hills.

However, some people – crofters and the Tap o’ Noth Farm, for example – do continue to grow arable crops, including not just oats and barley but also vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli, and even tea, in addition to keeping sheep and cows.

Such initiatives tend to be dismissed as anomalies but what if we were curious about what the outliers could show us?

Treating food and agriculture as separate entities contributes to the problem

Another problem is that many policies treat agriculture separately from food. Farming policies aim to boost exports, support farmers and, more recently, reduce environmental degradation (whether they effectively do this is another matter). They do not consider what foods are being produced or who is consuming them.

Scotland is a bit ahead of the game in that it does have a National Food and Drink policy (in contrast to England). While it does include a focus on local production for local consumption, the emphasis is still strongly on exports and I cannot help but think that the two are contradictory. As a recent report by the Food Research Collaboration argues, we need to transform Agricultural Policy into Sustainable Food Policy.

Agriculture should not just be about economics with a bit of ‘greening’ thrown in – it needs to be about food (as well as livelihoods, ecology and community). And this is by no means just a British or European problem. Professor Henrietta Moore, Director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity recently called for a revision of the mechanisms that “keep farmers trapped on the treadmill of producing for international markets at the expense of themselves and their families.”

Time, costs, and affordability perceptions

As for why people do not have the time and money to buy good quality local food, this seems to be a question that goes beyond the issue of farming to issues of housing, economy and lifestyles more broadly.

Value added at the farm represents only 5% of what UK consumers spend on UK food and drink, so increasing (or decreasing) costs there is not really going to make a huge difference. Looking at mark ups for processing and retailer margins would be more relevant. And with some of the highest costs of housing in the world, it is questionable whether the lack of access to quality food in the UK has to do with the cost of food itself or the cost of housing and other basic needs.

But there are also interesting questions about perception of cost, quality and affordability. I’ve experienced this dichotomy between cost perception and affordability at a personal level.

A friend of mine felt that she “could not afford” an organic cabbage (which can cost up to £1.60 in a high-end supermarket) and yet was happy to regularly pay for avocados which cost £1 each. This indicates that for some, consuming locally produced foods is largely related to price perception – whether prices are ‘too expensive’ or ‘too cheap’, rather than whether they are actually affordable. There are also issues about what is perceived as healthy – the rise of so-called ‘super foods’ might be coming at the expense of regular consumption of nourishing and affordable staples, as well as the expense of food security and ecological resilience in other countries.

Where do we draw the line(s) about what we consider to be local food?

So, if we were to consume more local foods, what would constitute being as ‘local’? The answer is not as straightforward as you would think.

The Food Meters project, for example, indicates that the geographical radius for local is different in different areas. And this is further complicated by the fact that having less food miles, does not necessarily mean that foods are more sustainable – organic tomatoes imported from Spain may have been grown and transported using less energy and producing less pollution than tomatoes grown in the UK in heated polytunnels or with high levels of fertilisers and pesticides. A third option, and the one that makes the most sense to me, would be to simply give up the idea of eating tomatoes all year round and simply enjoy them in the summer.

If we can learn anything from our past mistakes it is that we need to be thinking of food and farming in a more integrated way. And as Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Instead of resigning ourselves, perhaps conveniently, to claims such as “New Zealand lamb is more sustainable than British lamb”, it might be more productive to ask what could be done to make British lamb more eco-friendly.

And if a certain food simply does not grow well here, we might ask ourselves how our diets could shift to a more local yet still nourishing diet?

Holistic thinking, which is one the ten principles from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (PDF), could be one approach for this.

Who should be making decisions about our food systems and how?

According to principles of Food Sovereignty (PDF), decisions about how to improve our food systems should be centred on the realities of farmers (particularly small-scale and family farmers) and consumers themselves, rather than solely determined by the momentum of markets, the priorities of large businesses (including large-scale industrial farms) or the perceptions of high level government officials who are often removed from the realities of farming and eating on a budget.

But how can we manage our limits in understanding and our own biases?

One option is to use processes in which farmers and consumers come together to reflect and to hash it out, which we are using in our Pathways to Agroecological Food Systems project. This includes bringing together diverse groups of people to discuss and debate what an agroecological food system might look like at a local and national level. It entails building on people’s own knowledge while also presenting them with information that may challenge their perceptions.

One of the most important aspects is that the process includes a focus on the potentials (notice the plural of that word) for things to be different. It entails thinking both about the implications of our current food systems as well as the type of food systems we want to be creating for our future generations.

We recently had our first UK-focused workshop for the Agroecological Food Systems project, which follows on from workshops with farmers in Senegal and Nicaragua, and will be sharing some of our initial insights from our work in all of these countries soon. It is certainly an interesting time to be considering these issues as the UK begins to Brexit – watch this space.


About this opinion

Programmes and centres
Business and Development Centre

Related content