I was struck by the images of Mexico City in the recent BBC series by Andrew Marr on Megacities. In the episode on The Sustainable City he points out that Mexico City originally fed a large part of its population by using a series of artificial floating islands. Many of these remain and are still home to a farming community that grows and sells its produce to visitors who come mainly by boat. There is a recent blog here by a visitor to the islands.
He points out that modern Mexico is choked by its traffic partly due to the need to import its food by road. Mexico is relatively unusual among the worlds megacities by being far inland and not on a major river. It presents an interesting case study on the growth of cities and how they manage their food supply. It se me on a path to investigate how we are managing our supply of food here in the UK.
The Soil Association carried out a report on the subject of Food Security in the UK in 2008 and concluded that we only produce 60% (by value)of the food we consume. Since we import the cheaper foods it is possible that in terms of calorific value we actually produce less than half our food in the UK. It is interesting that such studies are either motivated by the idea of food security, or are dressed up to appear to be. Why do we think that security of supply is the pressing concern here. Is is because climate change isn’t pressing enough?
Defras position appears to be that supply of food should be managed by the open market and it is not in the UK’s interests to try to be self-sufficient. Since 60% of our imports come from within the EU, it makes sense to continue to import. Bizzarely, the EU imports 60% of its animal feedstock from other countries outside the EU, so the argument that our food supply actually comes from the EU doesn’t hold water.
The Soil Associations report called ‘An Inconvenient Truth about Food’ raises these issues, and many more, and points out that it is entirely possible to grow all our food using organic methods in the UK and feed ourselves, albeit on a lower meat diet than many of us are used to.
As oil prices rise and phosphates supplies reduce, it is entirely possible that within this century this will become a necessity and not an aspiration, as transport costs will reduce our ability to import and as fertiliser costs make fertiliser based agriculture unviable.
What is striking in the report is how unmanaged our food supply appears to be. There are doubts about the quality of our soil and its long term ability to grow food, there are questions about how much of our land could be inundated in the event of sea level rises, and there are doubts about the wisdom of continuing to import produce from countries that have to use large quantities of their precious water to grow crops for us that we can easily grow ourselves.
The lack of government management of our food supply strategy is amazing. This issue is as important as it gets.