Memorandum submitted by Richard Bruce (SFS 12)

 

How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

1. The rise in world food prices is a direct result of the influence of the financial markets and the attempts to persuade the public to accept GM foods. Political, not agricultural, pressures cause starvation in all parts of the world. Even in drought stricken areas food could easily be available if the political will existed.

2. Less than a decade ago "experts" and politicians were telling farmers in the UK that they did not need to produce food because it could be imported more cheaply. Thousands of farmers were forced out of the industry, taking their long-learned skills with them. Those who voiced concerns at this folly were ridiculed.

3. Now those same "experts" predict food shortages if the UK does not embrace even the most dangerous pesticides and GM crops. Such plans are unsustainable in a world where fuel resources are limited. Vital biodiversity is damaged by chemical use and the failure to ensure that seed development and supply is independent of the chemical industry, which itself has a vested interest in breeding varieties that are dependent on chemical inputs.

 

How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

 

4. The UK is in a very vulnerable position when it comes to security of the food supply. Agriculture has taken second place to all other considerations. "Environmental protection" and the building of new towns on prime agricultural land has been given more importance than feeding our people but this madness has been compounded by the encouragement of immigration to these already over-crowded islands. Population density is the key to sustainability of the food supply in any nation - and this has always been the case, even in nature. The food supply determines the size of the healthy population - not the other way around, as is always assumed for humans. There will be no long-term solution to the problem of a sustainable food supply until these matters are properly addressed. Any other fix will be temporary and unsustainable, especially in a world with finite resources.

5. Forcing food production to rise to meet the needs of a burgeoning population is no solution and will create bigger problems for future generations which may not have the resources or the opportunities to fix the problem. In decades past the UK could offset its requirement to import food by exporting its products from the industrial sector, which itself supplied the agricultural industry with its requirements for machinery. The industrial sector was destroyed in the 1980s and now UK agriculture imports most of its machinery, adding to the balance of payments deficit.

6. All plants and livestock have maintenance and growth requirements of minerals, vitamins, energy, proteins and fibre, water, etc., which cannot be supplied from a chemistry set in the exact requirements necessary to maintain health in the long-term. That is why the claims for genetically engineering of plants are over-optimistic since no plant can survive without the necessary nutrients. Even if there is a "drought-resistant gene" or an ability to increase the oil or vitamin content, the chemicals required to sustain that growth have to be supplied from somewhere.

7. For centuries mankind has been able to feed himself and his animals and still maintain the health of his soils. Livestock and permanent grassland had a vital role in providing our generation with the fertile soils and biodiversity that have sustained us all. Monoculture, heavy equipment, and chemicals that poison target and non-target organisms alike, are now systematically destroying that legacy.

8. It is time to regain that natural balance that is essential for our survival. The UK will always depend on food supplies from abroad. Some of those foods cannot be grown here at all. No matter how much production is increased that will never change. The UK should specialise in the traditional grass rotation crops and vegetables, grown successfully for centuries. These crops are best grown on smaller units where much more care is taken as regards soil type and crop growth than is possible on the large estates where most of the cereals are grown. Commercial pressures put those very smaller units at a considerable disadvantage both in the cost of production and the availability of suitable equipment, stock, seeds, chemicals, and labour. The big players call the shots and the small units are sacrificed.

9. Britain had its own system of subsidy that was developed over centuries to ensure that we could feed ourselves as a nation. In abandoning that success when the UK joined the EU our agriculture joined a system where there was over production and was locked into a system in which our production had to be cut to meet the requirements of the EU even though the UK has always been a net importer of food. From that moment the UK will never again be able to work towards security of its food supply unless it encourages the vital contribution of small-scale producers.

 

In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

 

- soil quality

 

10. As mentioned above the increasing size of holdings and the equipment used on them is inevitably leading to greater field size; the inability to treat areas of fields according to soil structure requirements; soil erosion resulting from the changing drainage patterns and lack of natural barriers and ditches; and the compaction of the soil, with loss of soil structure and biodiversity within the soils.

11. Environmentalists are now blaming farmers for flooding, supposedly caused by draining the land, but draining the land allows it to absorb water when it rains. Waterlogged land, concrete, roofs, and tarmac direct the rainfall immediately to the streams and rivers and to the flood plains further downstream. This serious factor does not appear to be accounted for in the planning process but has a direct effect on the soils and the sediments carried to the rivers and seas, taking pollutants with them.

12. Fertile soil is probably the most important of the legacies left to us by past generations and yet we are in danger of damaging it so much that future generations will not be able to grow the food they require in order to sustain their population.

 

- water availability

 

13. It is said that water will be the cause of future wars and yet we waste so much of what we have and we are polluting the sources with residues of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and industrial pollutants. Much of the water is wasted simply because our age-old systems combine clean rainwater with sewage waste. The contaminated water then has to be cleaned and filtered so that it can be used again but our entire system is designed to waste good clean water, not only because the rain water is diverted straight into the rivers but also because so much ground water is used to top up the depleted sources in rivers because the rain does not reach the aquifers.

14. Having wasted water it is then suggested that we employ desalination plants which themselves will be dependent on energy resources that will be in ever more limited supply.

 

- the marine environment

 

15. Pollutants from the land inevitably find their way to the seas. The land has been dosed with pesticides and industrial pollutants, and sewage, with its heavy metals and washing chemicals with their persistent perfumes etc., have been disposed of at sea for a very long time. Creatures living in the oceans are now contaminated with chemicals such as mercury and other pesticides. How long will it be before the fluoride now added to drinking water will be found in marine life?

16. We cannot sustain the way we are living unless we take more care of the wider environment. Fish are killed then thrown back into the oceans but fish stocks are dangerously low. It is illogical.

 

- the science base

 

17. A new definition of "science" is required. Currently the power of vested interests over the publicised science has corrupted the very term itself. Frequently there are peer-reviewed reports in the scientific press that directly oppose one another. While it is true that science is not static and that it is constantly evolving the principles of science have never changed but proof of theories has largely been abandoned and in its place theory has become accepted fact until it can be disproved. That is not science but theoretical pseudo-science and it is dangerously unreliable, especially when theories suggesting great advances if a technology is accepted are claimed to be science that "proves" that such advances will be made. A theory cannot be established science until its proof is written up and other, independent, scientists can substantiate the experimental evidence.

18. The science base and the knowledge base upon which we all depend have been weakened by false information promoted by industrialists who now employ and fund the majority of scientists in order to achieve the results they want rather than obtain objective scientific data. Much of the accepted scientific knowledge of 50 years ago has been undermined by the modern version where scientists are rewarded if they can find ways to suppress the true facts and to promote data that favours industry. The dangers should be obvious but the most damaging effect is to undermine the reputation of science itself. The suppressed evidence of harm to humans, animals, and the environment by pesticides and genetically modified crops are examples.

19. The potential exists now for rogue scientists to remove the DNA coding from meat so that those eating chicken will not know that pork meat has been added. Even more horrific is the fact that if this can be done with animal meat the same could be done with humans - and already scientists transfer DNA from human to animal and animal to plant on the assumption that they are simply dealing with chemicals. The same attitude regards one protein source as much the same as another causing the UK to suffer, and still suffer from, the BSE crisis.

20. The use of pharmaceutical herds has been hidden. Probably this is because the farmers have been robbed of vital raw material used for pharmaceuticals for decades without compensation for the taking of them or for the high costs of the rules intended to ensure that our herds are "clean" enough for that purpose.

21. In these times one step in the wrong direction could result in irreversible damage to the environment and humans. Commercial interests introduce dangerous uniformity, ignoring the fact that diversity is strength. The "science base" appears to be built on shifting sands.

 

- the provision of training

 

22. Historically the training was done as part of the employment in the industry. Such systems were akin to apprenticeships and often involved, but not always, day courses or full-time courses at college. However in catering and agriculture students have been taught by their teachers a certain way to do the work only to find that the employer demands that entirely different methods are used. This undermines the confidence of the student but also makes life difficult for the employers who have to spend time re-training their employees.

23. This problem is compounded by the fact that fewer people wish to work long hours in often dirty, uncomfortable and dangerous conditions and, in agriculture the ever decreasing numbers of people employed on the larger estates. There is no longer the time or the inclination to train young people who will only leave the industry when they see that the remuneration is better elsewhere for much less work and fewer hours. Skills are being lost at a faster rate than ever before and soon there will be no one left who will know how to do the work correctly - in the real world.

 

- trade barriers

 

24. The current trade laws are all based on political and not food security considerations.

25. The USA uses trade controls and the so-called "Free market" as a means to foist its own products on the entire world. Any country that tries to protect itself from the power of the USA based chemical and seed companies has the full weight of the law thrown at it in order to force that country to accept potentially damaging technologies in the name of "Free Trade".

26. The lack of trade barriers is actually damaging to the UK as a net importer of food and with the ludicrous position where exported food is of the same type as that imported, adding to environmental pollution, and risking importing deadly infections. This undermines UK farmers and the standards required of them for food safety and animal welfare. In an "open door" policy the costs of disease control and treating human illness will rise considerably.

 

- the way in which land is farmed and managed

 

27. If current trends continue there will be fewer people working the land than ever in UK history. Farmers will be completely dependent on foreign suppliers for seeds, fertiliser, chemicals and machinery, both new and for the necessary repairs. That is dangerous for the UK, both for food security and for the balance of payments, but it will also have damaging effects on the environment and will be completely unsustainable.

28. If the farmers of 50 years ago had the equipment available today they would have been able to produce very high yields simply because the machinery would have enabled them to plough, sow and harvest the crops in a more timely fashion and to store them in conditions where there is little waste. Even bird scarers are more efficient than they were at that time and yet current "scientific" thinking suggests that farmers will be unable to grow crops as well today.

29. Do today's farmers really know how to farm the land? The traditional farmers understood the forces of nature and worked with them while the modern farmer thinks he can beat it into submission with mighty machines and poisons. It will never be sustained.

30. When Britain had to grow more of its own food it did so by intensive production on small areas of land. Every spare patch of ground can grow vegetables and the average family outside of the cities can contribute considerably to the food production of the nation using relatively small areas of land, with the added advantage of recycling any food waste, which is of course much less because food grown at home will include vegetables that are perfectly edible but which are rejected by supermarkets due to the required standards of uniformity.

31. Many benefits would follow if UK farms were smaller units. The land would be better used. More operators using smaller machinery using less fuel for the same work, maintained by more mechanics. Food supply could be truly "local". The environment could be rapidly improved and the biodiversity required for natural balance would be created relatively quickly.

32. Such a policy could be good not only for agriculture but also for our industry and the economy, with more people understanding food production and the associated problems.

 

What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

33. Defra has not been exactly impressive since it was formed after the failure of MAFF following the BSE crisis. It embraces the same organisations that failed us then and since little has changed it is likely that there will be similar failures in the future.

 

Summary

34. The current situation was entirely predictable. Many people warned that the failure to protect and support UK agriculture would endanger the food security of the country but "experts" ridiculed those who argued against the popular view.

35. There is a suggestion that the current situation has been deliberately engineered by those who wish to force the public to accept monoculture, genetically modified crops, and heavy pesticide reliance that comes with that technology. The fear of starvation is used as a "persuader".

36. As so often in the past the popular view is not necessarily the correct one or the most sustainable and it must surely not be beyond the intelligence of man to find ways to work with nature rather than to attempt to beat it into submission with poisons and heavy machinery, all of which rely entirely on fossil fuels, which we are told will destroy the planet.

37. Smaller well managed farms are able to treat the soil with the respect it deserves; improve drainage and reduce soil erosion; employ more people; produce more food per hectare, make use of poorer soils with grazing livestock that assist in building soil fertility; are more timely in essential cultivations and harvest; and, most of all, encourage diversity in crops grown, livestock reared, and the biodiversity in the natural environment upon which our very future depends.

38. Current leaders have the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past. But will they act before it is too late and irreversible damage has been caused?

 

January 2009