Food imports - a crisis?

Food imports
What's the problem?
Explore your larder and most likely you will find it full of imported food: Kenyan beans and Spanish tomatoes; Mexican honey and basil from the West Bank. As well as the CO2 implications of food miles, there are also concerns over food security - that Britain relies too heavily on imports and is losing the ability to feed itself.


Has Britain ever been self-sufficient?

We have relied on imported food for centuries, often from the Empire. But the erosion of import controls and subsidies for British farmers, coupled with the buying power of big retailers, have all opened up the market to imports. In the past ten years, self-sufficiency in food has fallen by 18 per cent in the UK. We currently import 95 per cent of our fruit and 50 per cent of our vegetables, and the volume of food imports has increased sevenfold since 1960, though our volume of exports has also increased. Low wages in the developing world and cheap fuel for ships and aircraft mean it is often cheaper to buy foreign food.

Should we stop importing food?

Obviously buying local and in season is the ideal, but for many of the foods we eat, the situation is not clear cut. Food miles are a significant part of the carbon footprint of almost every one of us. Nationally 2.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions arise from importing our food. But that's not the whole story - farming, wherever it takes place, relies increasingly on fossil fuels to make fertilisers and pesticides, and also to create artificial climates for production. Take tomatoes: we import three-quarters of our tomatoes, mostly from Spain. Clearly, buying British is the low-energy option when in season, but for the rest of the year, air-freighting tomatoes from the polytunnels of southern Spain actually uses less energy than heating a British greenhouse.

What about organic food?

This poses a dilemma as only two-thirds of the food on the organic aisles is grown here. However, organic food does not have the huge carbon footprint from manufacturing fertiliser and pesticides, so it may be the overall carbon-friendly option, even if it is imported.

Can we rely on global food supplies?

Maybe not - food security is an increasing concern. Global action on climate change is encouraging farmers around the world to start growing biofuels rather than food. British farmers are already growing rape seed for biodiesel, sugar beet for bioethanol and elephant grass to burn in power stations. If farmers can make more money growing crops to power the world's cars and power stations, they will surely grow these instead of food. Also, as the world's oil supplies start to dwindle and carbon taxes increase, it may become too expensive to import  bulk foods and too expensive to grow them in the way we currently do.

The Country Living verdict
Importing food can sometimes be the preferable option in environmental terms but when large amounts of food are being exported to Europe and large amounts imported to Britain, something has gone wrong. If we do not buy British farmers' produce, we could be surrounded by fields of biofuel plantations. We have to buy local and seasonal food more often: at farmers' markets, local stores and even in the supermarket aisle. Join CL's campaign at www.fairtradeforbritishfarmers.co.uk

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