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Food crisis could force wartime rations
and vegetarian diet on Britons
Consumer Editor: The Times
Filed 11 Aug 09
This article was originally published in The Times on 10th August 2009.
It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and of the newspaper.
The British people face wartime rations and a vegetarian diet in the event of a world food shortage, a new official assessment on the UK’s food security suggests today.
Even though the nation is 73 per cent self-sufficient in food production, higher than during the 1950s, the food chain is at risk from global influences such as a worldwide increase in population, climate change bringing extreme weather patterns, higher oil prices and more crops being grown for bio-fuel instead of food.
Supplies in future may also be disrupted by animal disease outbreaks, disruption of power supplies, trade disputes and interruptions for shipping and at ports.
The UK however has one of the highest cereal production capabilities in the world with seven tonnes grown per hectare, compared a world average of 3.3 tonnes per hectare.
In the event of an extreme event, cereal crops would be used to feed the nation and ensure that each person received sufficient daily calories.
But people would have to consume less — the average number of calories eaten per day in the early 1960s was about 2,100, whereas the most recent figure compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation is 2,800.
Even during the Second World War Britain did not have to rely wholly on domestic food production, but Hilary Benn, the Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for food policy, has ordered officials to prepare for a scenario where the country could feed itself.
In the event of an extreme emergency the most dramatic consequence would be every person eating a predominantly vegetarian diet — more cereals, fruit and vegetables and less meat and poultry. Cereals used to feed farm animals would be shifted into human food production.
A paper setting out the food security assessment states that the food on offer would be “a highly restricted, if sufficiently nutritious diet”.
One of the biggest threats to the supply chain would be restrictions in trade of meat and poultry from Argentina and Brazil or of GM soya, the main commodity used to feed livestock in Britain.
The threat of climate change however will also require new growing techniques such as reduced water usage in agriculture.
In times of normal trading, however, the Government also wishes to ensure that the nation eats a healthier diet and is particularly concerned that low-income households are able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables.
Ministers are also anxious that consumers have confidence in the safety of food and further work is to be undertaken to help reduce the incidence of food poisoning caused by common bugs such as salmonellas, listeria, E.coli and campylobacter. Hygiene inspections at food outlets by local authority enforcement officers is likely to be stepped up.
Mr Benn today called for a radical rethink on the way the UK produces food. He also insisted that GM crops in future could help boost food production especially if some varieties were drought-resistant or required less water, fertilisers and pesticides.
He backed the need for GM crop trials to find out the facts about the new technology and to use the science to boost production.
“We need a radical rethink in how we produce and consume food. Globally we need to cut emissions and adapt to the changing climate that will alter what we can grow and where we can grow it. We must maintain the natural resources — soils, water and biodiversity — on which food production depends.”
“And because we live in an interconnected world — where the price of soya in Brazil affects the price of steak at the local supermarket — we need to look at global issues that affect food security here. That’s why we need to consider what food systems should look like in 20 years and what must happen to get there.”
He is anxious to engage the wider public in debate about the future of the country’s food security as well as how best to help people eat healthier diets and to ensure that new production techniques do not damage the UK’s natural resources.
A new UK food strategy is to be published before the end of the year.