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Jeremy's Blog 25th March: Food Security Issues

This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 24th March 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has instantly removed a large supply of grain and oilseeds from markets immediately affecting prices in the already tight tail of the 2021 harvest. Forward markets seem to recognise that little may come from the Black Sea for the 2022 harvest.

That naturally prompts discussion of food security though this means very different things in different contexts. From Joseph advising Pharoah to policy now in Switzerland and China, this often focuses on building and holding strategic stocks. In other contexts, it can be about the affordability of food – a reason for the end of the Corn Laws. It can lead to diversifying supply chains to reduce risk – the argument that no source should provide more than a quarter of a market.

Here it is now argued as the capacity to produce food, conditioned by island memories of the Napoleonic and two World Wars, when production here and imports both focused on high calorie foods. However, the recent Food Security report showed near or full self-sufficiency in many main sectors.

The challenge now is whether environmental policies reduce that capacity. However, not all land contributes equally to food production. Announced policies, if effective, would take less land from all England than set-aside at its peak took from arable farming. Land for climate change, nature and the environment might often be land less suited to food production though lowland peat illustrates the tensions. Overall, climate change and biodiversity loss pose substantial medium- to long-term risks to food security and so those uses can themselves reduce risks and costs for farming and the economy. Improving soils will typically help both farming profits and environmental ends. Without compulsory policies, land use decisions by owners and farmers would tend to see profitable farming retain more land.

The constraint now is not the land but the factors used in farming; immediately with the cost and availability of inputs and then in making the best use of them. Tackling our productivity and profitability problem is this food security’s larger challenge to farming, aided by top quartile management performance.

Where food supply is the goal, new technologies could both assist farming and provide alternatives to using land, from controlled environment farming to cell-grown foods. Such a policy could also influence the types of food produced.

Following Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, DEFRA has worked on a wider food and land use white paper. Understood to have been written, it is being reviewed again in the light of the war. We shall see what that says.

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