Land use and food security

One of the big questions for me is whether we devote too much land to farming and not enough to […]

One of the big questions for me is whether we devote too much land to farming and not enough to land use for wildlife, wilderness, woodland, places to walk and places to live etc. that is land for its ‘amenity’ value or for development. About 70% of England is given over to farming and only about 10% to development (see my earlier posting), yet surveys show most people think that much more land (>50%) is developed than really is (see Q1 in this survey for the Barker Review). The survey also shows that people have strong preferences for land for its wildlife and landscape value (Q3).

So, why don’t we have more national parks, reforest large areas of rural England, get most of the sheep off the uplands, switch to extensive low impact agriculture producing high-quality and high-value foods, open up access to land, fill the countryside with helpful signposts and paths and let people enjoy living in England? I was out walking in the Thames Valley this weekend – very nice, but I did wonder why there was so much sheep farming going on what must be some of the most highly prized real estate in the land. An occasional sortie out of the city reveals just how much space there is given over to low value agriculture, even in crowded South East England.

The argument that usually comes back is some variation on ‘we need domestic farming for food security‘ or worries about the loss of self-sufficiency in food production. We might become more dependent on food imports, and that would be A Bad Thing. So how credible is the food security argument? Indeed, what exactly is the argument? I think it takes us to the heart of the great debate about land use that there ought to be. In summary, I think the food security argument is entirely bogus, but a key question for land use policy becomes ‘how much should we consider the international impacts of what we do domestically?’ …

What is food security?
Most definitions [here][Wikipedia] are based on people having access an adequately nutritious diet. But the concept spans a range from having sufficient calories to remain alive to maintaining affordable choice in the diet – kumquats in January and affordable Piedmont white truffles at all times. Although often expressed in terms of access, food security is really an economic concept – about having the means to buy food, and about being near enough people with the means to create a market. Even the worst famines rarely arise from absolute food shortages, but loss of purchasing power and market failures (See Economist on Niger famine, Amartya Sen, Poverty & Famines) and few people actually starve in a famine – rather they die through infectious diseases. The symptoms of food insecurity are high or volatile prices. We should be clear, food security is first and foremost a problem for the poorest developing countries and for poor people everywhere.

Promoting self sufficiency – but why?
Much is made of self-sufficiency in food production – for some the declining ‘self-sufficiency ratio’ (see chart above [Defra data Table 7.4]) is a crisis. The National Farmers Union (unsurprisingly) sees it as vital.

In 1996 we produced more of our own food, and for a higher population, than at any time since the mid-nineteenth century. But that level of self-sufficiency has been falling. In the last 10 years, overall self-sufficiency has fallen by 18% and self-sufficiency in indigenous foods by 15%, as a result of lower UK production, reduced exports and increased imports. The figures look stark… [From first page of the NFU’s case for farming: Why farming matters – December 2006].

Actually, our self sufficiency depends on how you look at it. The lower chart is derived from the FAO Food Balances’ (see here), but presented as calories per head per day rather than in prices. The food balance looks at production, exports, imports and consumption of food and as inputs, such as feed and seed. The self sufficiency ratio is domestic production divided by production + net imports. On this basis, we are 83% self-sufficient in calories. See my Google spreadsheet [XLS], which sets out the food balances for the UK and a few other countries extracted from FAO. The lower chart above summarises the spreadsheet for the UK – it breaks down self-sufficiency into different food groups.

We are self-sufficient in the most important food group in energy terms, cereals. Where we are a net importer, it is primarily for meat (New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon etc) where others have advantages in production, or for things we like but don’t grow here (fruit, olive oil). We tend to import higher value foods – but these are to some extent the excitement and choice in our diet, not the raw energy content.

But so what if we do import food?
What would higher self-sufficiency actually do for us? Not much actually. Domestically produced food still gets more expensive when world prices go up – so it doesn’t somehow protect our people. In fact we end up at greater risk that pest, drought or some other rural plague will strike down domestic supply. It would matter for the economy if we were a huge importer or exporter and the agricultural sector was a substantial part of the economy – in which case we might worry about terms of trade shocks or other bad things that world markets might do to us. But we aren’t, it isn’t and we don’t need to.

Agriculture accounts for only 0.9% of UK GVA, about £9.6 billion, and it is the small player in the £80 billion UK food industry – food manufacturing accounts for £21 billion and distribution and services, such as restaurants, £49 billion. The agriculture net negative trade balance is £4.9 billion (ie more imports), but this is less than the £6.1 billion net imports of office machinery and computers. We are 22.5% important dependent in agriculture, but 52% import dependent in computers and office equipment. [Source: ONS Input-Output Analysis, 2006]

So should we be more worried about importing food or computers? Answer: neither.

Trade is the basis of food security
Trade enables us to buy more food, more cheaply and with greater choice. A very good report by a team in Defra makes this case extremely well [Food Security in the UK: an evidence and analysis paper]. Strangely this seems to have popped out just before Xmas 2006 – usually a sign that something is to be buried! Maybe it was that it came a few days after the NFU report on Why farming matters.

As the authors say: The conscious or unconscious identification of food security with self-sufficiency has often obscured the real issues… and … a discourse centred on ‘UK self-sufficiency’ is fundamentally misplaced and unbalanced.

The importance of markets in securing food supplies is well illustrated in charts included in the report (left). For vegetables, countries within the EU have varying self-sufficiency. But the EU is overall almost self sufficient. For fruit, some countries barely grow it all, but the EU meets most needs (but can’t grow much tropical fruit). Over time, the EU has become more dependent – but that probably reflects an increasing taste for fruit, lowering tariffs that allow access to lower cost producers, taste for more exotic fruits not grown in the EU.

The point is that markets and trade deliver food security, diversity and resilience in the supply system. The report concludes:

International trade has long been a central feature of UK food supply, and has remained critical even during times of emergency. There is no reason to suggest this will be less in future. At the very least, UK food security is tied up with the EU single market and, ultimately, the efficiency of the world trading system.

I think the big question about land use in England is how much we care about the international impacts of decisions we make about UK self-interest… there are two in particular: the international environmental footprint and the impact of our land choices on the food security of others.

Exporting environmental footprint…
I hope you might be convinced that ‘self-sufficiency’ in food isn’t a worthwhile objective in its own right, and may even be harmful – it certainly has little to do with food security. But what about the argument that we are simply exporting the environmental footprint associated with food production? We could turn England into a pristine green and pleasant national park with all industrial farming removed. But food production, fertilisers, water pollution, biodiversity impacts and all the rest would go abroad.

The first thing to note is that this is absolutely the norm – we do this for manufacturing, mining and other high impact activities. Much of our polluting is done elsewhere. At the heart of this is the theory of comparative advantage and our preferences. Rich English people have a high and increasing preference for good environments (articulated collectively through numerous laws, codes, the planning system). Other countries may relatively favour more aggressive and polluting activities and prefer money raised through production of goods to sell to us. We have traditionally respected this as a matter of ‘national sovereignty’ and resisted what some would call ‘environmental imperialism‘.

I think this reluctance to impose extra-territorial standards will and should continue, with an expectation that food standards and costs will rise globally and that more countries will emulate the EU and set high environmental standards as they become more prosperous. But I think there should be one exception to pure national sovereignty – where the impact is on a ‘global public good‘ ie. something we should all bear responsibility for protecting because it’s value is global and it has characteristics of a public good. If the system behaved in such a way that for every hectare of land taken out of agriculture in England a hectare was felled in the Amazon or Borneo, I’d be troubled. I’m not sure it would behave in that way, but the challenge there is to develop global collective action to provide global public goods.

PS. we should be very sceptical about ‘food miles’ arguments (see my earlier posting: Food miles… wrong idea, stop using it!)

Impact on the poorest…
If we use UK land for producing ‘non-marketed’ goods that we have high demand for (like leisure, views, woodland walks and biodiversity), then we are adding to the pressure on available productive land to meet food and energy needs globally. That doesn’t hurt us too much, as we simply buy access to the necessary land through international trade. But does it hit those who are the poorest? To be honest, I don’t know…

How it could make things worse…
Pressures on land may grow – fuelled by population growth, economic growth, a tendency to consume more protein with increasing wealth, demand for biofuels and climate change and other pressures degrading the available land. This would be globally serious if agricultural productivity growth (increasing yields per hectare) did not keep pace with these pressures. Land prices and agricultural commodity prices would increase and the poor may be unable to afford sufficient food. In fact, the productive capacity of the land may be globally insufficient to support the world population. The poor would be the inevitable losers.

Why it might easy to overstate the problem…
If land and food became scarce, we might expect those poor countries with agricultural economies to benefit from rising prices – just as oil producers (in theory at least) benefit from rising oil prices. A new green revolution might boost productivity and food production might shift, with perhaps Ukraine and Russia becoming bread-baskets of Europe, for example. As prices rise, there may be reconfiguration of the diet – perhaps with less resource-hungry protein consumption. Famine is rarely caused by absolute food shortages – and there is unlikely to be a global food shortage in absolute terms. Richer poor countries would have a better grip on their food security.

The international consequence are a critical question for land-use strategy
As I suspect is apparent, I’m not really sure how the international consequences of domestic land use choices would or should really play out. But what I am sure about is that these are critical questions for a future land use strategy. At the moment we generally do not act on these consequential impacts (in fact we usually wilfully ignore obvious damage caused by key farming policies like the CAP). But is this hard-headed and basically right, or does it belong to a pre-globalisation era of narrowly defined national interest?

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1 thought on “Land use and food security”

  1. I totally dissagree.
    Famines come from a shortage of food.
    The cause of people not being able to afford the food is there not much of it left and then price goes up. Supply and demand, is a basic law for everyone. In Ireland the famines happened because of the potato diseaseas, which cut production. This raised the price. It is easy to put the cart before the horse so say people could not afford the food well that was because of supply and demand the supply had decreased. We need food security we need food security. Farms can good looking to. Farmers should just be more grateful for their subsidies. .

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