August 28, 2013
The idiocies of the food miles thesis, the idea that every nation should seek self-sufficiency in food production to save the planet from global warming have received a further boost from the UK’s National Farmers Union. In what must rank as one of its most misguided publicity stunts, the Union is urging the British people to buy and eat more home grown food. Nothing wrong with that you may say. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, designed to promote the interests of its members, one might think.
But launching its Buy British Charter with the sensational claim that if the nation were solely dependent on domestic food production, it would have run out of food on August 14 is not reasonable – it is just plain stupid. Did NFU chairman Peter Kendall expect to be taken seriously when, launching this campaign, he said: “To think that today’s date would signal the time when our domestic food supply runs out is frankly alarming”? No its not. Anyone who does ‘think’ knows full well that every developed country needs a mixture of home grown and imported food, not only to provide the widest possible consumer choice but also to give people the economic benefit of comparative advantages of trade.
Agricultural autarchy is not only nonsensical in the context of one nation’s food supply, but highly dangerous in terms of global food security. Because in the modern world countries buy food commodities from and sell them to each other , agricultural production is distributed all round the globe. Even in the worst weather-caused harvest shortfalls, reductions in one region are compensated by increases in others. Only when governments meddle with markets, as happened in 2007-08, does the world food ‘system’ break down.
The NFU campaign is of course designed to benefit from the ‘food miles’ liturgy, so beloved of the green lobby and now part of the liberal conventional wisdom. This assumes that buying local will automatically reduce the distance involved and therefore GHG emissions from transporting food. Despite the fact that full life cycle analysis indicates that many imported food products – Spanish tomatoes and New Zealand butter are prime examples – too often have a smaller ‘green footprint’ than the same products grown in the UK, the ‘local is best’ doctrine persists.
Critics could well point out that given the UKs’ position as a major trading nation, the NFU should be well pleased that national food self-sufficiency is as high as its current 60 per cent. This is probably the highest it has been since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the mid 19th century. Were it not for the high levels of protection provided by the EU’s common agricultural policy, Britain’s high cost producers would have a very much smaller share of the national food market. <28/08/2013>