We are reaching a pivotal moment, a crunch time for food security in a UK which produces barely 60% of the crops it needs. An acute shortage of both HGV drivers, and people prepared to pick veg and fruit  - EU nationals now largely denied access to Brexit Britain -  has once again exposed the fragility of just-in-time delivery to supermarkets.  It’s a system developed for car assembly plants but  ill-suited to the vagaries of food distribution across long distances.

Talk of a food crisis is not wide off the mark. In the world’s sixth largest economy, with one of the largest farmed areas in Europe – around 70 per cent of land – crops are rotting in fields because of labour shortages.  The result? Rather than growing more – and 40 years’ ago we produced 80 per cent of our food – self-sufficiency will fall further. We will have to import more, not less, from the EU – which is why the government, amid warnings of empty shelves, has again delayed implementation of Brexit border controls on EU produce entering Britain. The EU largely fills our food gap.

This is all about planning in the widest sense. And the warning signs were already there when Covid 19 struck early in 2020,  briefly emptying supermarket shelves. At a stroke veg, fruit, dairy products and meat  -  and, of course, toilet rolls – briefly disappeared. Consumers instead turned to alternative suppliers: the myriad smaller-scale food-growing co-ops, and other local  ‘field to fork’ producers with direct links to consumers. Many of these producers couldn’t cope with demand. They briefly rationed. They want to expand – if only the incentives were available. But ministers have turned a blind eye. Food security isn’t a priority.

There is another way.  Addressing it depends on treasuring, nurturing, and – where geography, geology and soil allows – farming that most basic, life-sustaining resource, our land, to produce more food. This means raising fundamental questions about the use, abuse, ownership – and potential – of land and supporting those smaller-scale growers with potential to expand, sidelined by the EU’s outgoing subsidy regime, to increase production. But more measures are needed.

Above all else,  the government has a primary responsibility to keep us safe and secure – that means providing food security -  and build resilience into a fragile distribution system.  This means growing more food on the three quarters of farm land either devoted to cattle and sheep  or to providing crops to feed livestock. Most in the farming industry feel an emerging Environmental Land Management Scheme in England, or ELMS – which will compensate farmers for enhancing biodiversity, and storing carbon – will hinder rather than help food production. They argue that progressive farming, without harmful fertilisers and insecticides, and minimal ploughing, can work in harmony with nature.

As it is, a fragile union of three nations, with a share of fourth - England, Scotland Wales, and six counties of northern Ireland – is critically ill-prepared in two key areas: feeding 68 million people and preparing for the climate emergency.

Learning from history

Take just one example of our regression. From being a fairly stable home producer, say 40 years’ ago (when we grew enough food to feed ourselves for 306 days each year)  we’ve now slumped significantly  (233 days). Narrow this down, and you discover that the collapse of a once-vibrant horticulture industry has left us only 23% self-sufficient in fruit and veg – with the Netherlands and Spain filling the gap.  Side-stepping this issue by arguing that other countries can feed us if we slump further, such as Australia, and the Americas,  as some ideologues in the government (and others influencing it) argue, is surely a cop-out, an abnegation of responsibility. In short, the UK is beset by food insecurity; there’s a mismatch between need and land use. The government has opted out of one key responsibility: feeding the nation. There’s no resilience in the food system. We need reminding that governments in the last century once intervened in two areas:

  • Acquiring land, sometimes compulsorily, through ground-breaking land settlement legislation in the Highlands 100 years’ ago which provided thousands of new crofts, or smallholdings (still on the statute book) and measures in England to create both a Land Settlement Association (abolished in 1980) whose smallholdings once produced  much of our salad crop and county council farms in England and Wales, which are still operating at a much reduced level, with around 200,000 acres overall
  • Legislating, to curb tax evasion. That was 111 years’ ago, in a ‘Peoples’ Budget’,  when the level of inheritance tax was doubled,  amid screams from the large landowners Have we learned nothing? Today, speculation in land, often by those with little interest in farming, is driven by both exploiting inheritance and capital gains tax alongside the penchant of the aristocracy and the wealthy to create ‘tax-efficient’ family trusts to shelter billions in offshore tax havens.

What to do?

We need to re-frame the debate surrounding land and the way it’s used, from this starting point: the need for a cohesive strategy, across government, both to build resilience into our food system, from grower/producer to retailer while, at the same time, addressing the climate emergency. This means:

  • Redesigning the taxation system to abolish relief from Inheritance and capital gains tax; a recently retired head of HMRC says the current tax breaks serve the UK badly.
  • Strengthening the planning system – learning from Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland – to help deliver farming land for ‘active’ use and to provide genuinely affordable housing for people who want to farm and support nature’s recovery, through acquiring small parcels for development at ‘existing use’ value: an argument gaining considerable traction in Scotland.
  • Obliging new owners of land, in legal titles, to manage and farm ‘sustainably’, and in the public interest: admittedly, a modest step – but, at least a statement of intent.
  • Creating a new land/countryside agency in England,  partly modelled on both the Scottish Land Commission. launched in 2016,  and former bodies in England abolished after2010. Among other functions, this is one key to ensuring that a new Agriculture Act, which includes the new ELMS regime, and – confusingly – a new Environment Bill, aimed at restoring nature, have the necessary cohesion.

This blog was written by Peter Hetherington and the views expressed within it are his own.

Peter Hetherington’s latest book, Land Renewed: reworking the countryside is published by Bristol University/Policy Press, on October 20, 2021. He is the author of Whose Land is Our Land?  Policy Press, 2015.