Food self-sufficiency is a red herring, says eminent professor

Placing too much emphasis on food self-sufficiency is not helpful as the farming sector grapples with the challenges that lie ahead after Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to renowned economist Allan Buckwell.

Briefing journalists ahead of the publication of a new report on these issues for the Worshipful Company of Farmers, he suggested international trade was working perfectly well to ensure adequate food supplies for all.

See also: Balancing imports v self-sufficiency

“Just look what we have gone through in the past six months,” he said. “We’ve gone through the most incredible crisis which has completely disrupted the way we market our food between retail and food service.

“Yet I’d be so bold as to suggest that nobody went hungry as a result of that.

“Some people are undoubtedly in food poverty, but that is nothing to do with food supplies – it’s to do with the fact that they’ve lost their jobs and their income.”

Adjustment

Considering that Covid-19 is a global disease, the world trade system had adjusted amazingly, he added.

“What really matters to our food security is that we are depleting our soil fertility and damaging the climate by the way we are conducting our affairs. That’s what threatens the long-run productive capacity to feed the world.”

Prof Buckwell also pointed to the numerous reports that suggest UK consumers are overconsuming calories, fats and proteins, compared with their dietary needs.

“We’re eating ourselves into ill health and we’re wasting 20-30% of the food, and then you try to say the problem is we’re not growing enough? It doesn’t stack up.”

Agroecology

With no imperative to go all out for maximum food production, Prof Buckwell believes that more emphasis should be placed on agro-ecological farming, as the sector tries to balance the multiple demands being made of it.

“There are two different narratives,” he said. “One says we have to produce more to feed the world, so full steam ahead with new technologies.

“But then we hear others saying no, the system is broken and we must transition our whole food system towards agroecology.”

The first narrative pays no regard to overconsumption and food waste, and insufficient attention to restoring climate stability and biodiversity.

But the second ignores the economic and technical feasibility of agroecology, and how to deal with the higher food price and trade questions it raises.

“My instincts are that we have to move towards the second narrative, but I don’t see why we should turn our backs on technology that aids resource efficiency,” said Prof Buckwell.