food globalisation

Why did Britain stop feeding itself?

Britain only grows a portion of its own food. This is a topic of conversation among advocates of relocalization and sustainability, but it rarely gets any serious attention outside of a crisis. It last came up a decade ago, in response to the global food price spike in 2008 and 2010. As I mentioned recently, there’s a good chance that the coronavirus situation will put food security back on the agenda.

One thing I find interesting about food in Britain is that things are better now than they once were. Today we import about half of our food if we count it by value – more like a third if we look at weight or calories. We could describe Britain as basically two thirds self-sufficient. That’s a whole lot better than it was in the 1930s, when Britain could only provide a third of its own food.

Famously, this weakness was identified during the Second World War, and used against us as an important part of enemy strategy. Germany used submarines to attack incoming food imports, hoping to starve the country into submission. The response was the Home Front, complete with the ‘dig for victory’ campaign. Gardens were dug up, people kept chickens, and rationing and the Ministry of Food kept everybody fed. That story is often told. It’s become part of our national consciousness, despite our failure to learn many of the lessons. The story of why we ended up so dependent on others to feed us is rarely told at all.

During and then after the war, Britain modernised and mechanised its farming. It made research a priority. The government fixed prices for agricultural goods on a rolling 18 month basis, which stabilised prices and encouraged investment in agriculture. Incomes in the countryside rose and our self sufficiency improved. It peaked in the early 90s, when Britain could meet over 70% of its needs, and has gently declined since.

So why did Britain decide that feeding itself wasn’t important? How did we leave ourselves so vulnerable?

It’s a question addressed in Tim Lang’s recent book Feeding Britain, and he suggests that it’s to do with capital and empire. In the heyday of the empire, Britain sat at the centre of an enormous trading network. Products could be brought in from anywhere. It was often cheaper to produce food elsewhere, which meant that we benefited from cheaper food prices. There were technological challenges to overcome, but as transport systems improved, it was easy enough to make the switch. The first shipment of frozen meat from New Zealand landed in Britain in 1882 – so this is not a recent phenomenon.

Capital was deployed in pursuit of profit, so the money from the empire went into industry and exports. Agriculture couldn’t offer the same returns. Investment poured into factories selling manufactured goods to the world, and people migrated from farms into the industrial labour market. Farming atrophied and food production declined. From total sufficiency in 1750, it dropped to about 60% over the next century. We were growing 40% of our food during the First World War, and it would fall further before we realised how dangerous that was.

In other words, we chose to focus on making money, and then used the money to buy food wherever it was cheapest. That used to be the colonies, so we were in charge of where food went. We could – and did – insist that food was still exported during famines. Amartya Sen has documented this in India, where millions of people starved while British administrators exported food and suppressed news coverage of the famine.

Today we rely on the global markets, and as a rich country, we can pay more if we need to. The laws of competition and supply and demand make the ethics of global food production much more abstract, but the result can still be the same as the days of empire. Food moves from poorer to richer countries, even in times of dire local need.

In Lang’s words, Britain still has “a malign assumption that we have the right to be fed”. We don’t need to grow our own food, and “a post-imperialist default policy still rules: that others can feed us”.

That’s an assumption that might be tested in the coming months and years, and Lang argues that we are more vulnerable than we think. We should do something about that, not just because it would give us greater food security, but because it’s the right thing to do. We shouldn’t be depleting the water supplies and soil fertility of other countries, while neglecting our own resources and rural communities. We should not hide behind market economics and perpetuate a global system where the ability to pay is all that matters, and the rich get seconds before the poor get firsts.

While the public health crisis gets all the headlines, a food crisis is almost certain to follow hot on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak. The poorest and most vulnerable will be hit hardest, again. Britain will be relying on its wealth to keep the shelves stocked. We should also look to the land again. We can do better.

5 comments

  1. A big problem here, as I see is it, is our attitude to ‘food’, implied when you say ‘In other words, we chose to focus on making money’ and ‘Tim Lang … suggests that it’s to do with capital and empire’. That is, we treat ‘food’ as a commodity, to be bought and sold in markets. In 1944, Karl Polanyi argues in ‘The Great Transformation’ that there are three false or fictitious commodities – money, land and labour. In my view, we have, by our behaviour, added food to this list, a situation barely visible back in 1944 when so much food was grown and consumed locally, even in the UK. But these are the very four things that capital chases in order to make quick and easy profits when the returns from investment in the productive economy (actually making things) has become very low.
    The domination of supermarkets reinforces the commodification of food, with everything that most of us eat packaged and branded, making the food totally remote from the conditions of growing. These days those conditions are not just the famines you rightly mention from the days of empire, but which have not gone away, but the impact of weather and climate on actually growing food, which sees farmers and growers even in our rich country going to the wall.
    There was a time when everyone said grace before a meal, painfully aware that the next crop might simply not turn up and hunger was never far away. We glimpsed some of that during the second world war, but the solution was to embrace technology and then markets, relying on our own hubris, and so paving the way for turning food into a commodity.
    Our recent circumstances have revealed just how false all four ‘commodities’ really are, with money being freely ‘printed’; labour being paid not to work; land unable to attract a rent; and food disappearing off the shelves.
    Unless we change soon, we will have a terrible price to pay.

  2. That’s really interesting. But having just read Rewilding by Isabella Tree I’m wondering how we square the need to grow more of our own food with the need for less intensive agricultural practices, better management of the land to sequester carbon and biodiversity. Maybe the two things are not mutually exclusive, so it would be interesting to see that explored.

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