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23rd October 2014

Britain is a nation of bird lovers, or so it claims. However, a report authored by ten top NGO’s has recently revealed that we have lost 44 million breeding pairs over the last fifty years. In relation to the relatively new understanding of ecological webs; species interdependence, and ever expanding diversity, our plummeting bird numbers have highlighted Britain’s broken and unsustainable agricultural system.

According to the Square Meal report (1), the fracture in food production and supply is manifesting itself in several other key areas:

1.    Health - 33% of under 18’s in the UK are overweight or obese. The NHS predicts a £50 billion bill for diet related illnesses by 2050.
2.    Food poverty - 913,138 people in crisis across the UK were provided with three days emergency food at the the end of March 2014. Rising food prices are set to continue.
3.    Reliance on imported feed - 75% of the protein fed to our livestock in the EU is imported.  (The US is actively pushing GM feed through the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)).
4.    Farmer inequality - 25% of all UK farmers live in poverty. 

Who gets the money from farming?

The most striking inequality of the food system is the profit made by the small farmers and the share-holders investing in big corporations. Of the £196 billion generated annually by farmers, who provide the most important service for sustaining life, only £5.4 billion or 4.6 % goes to farmers.  One of the biggest challenges for mending the food and farming system is reassessing our values. 

Change is never easy. And in regard to the vested interests within the broad economic picture of food production, there is going to be resistance.  So, it is down to the people to enact a movement of food change and to put pressure on our politicians to provide a clear strategy and policy towards promoting living wages for farmers, more diversity, and to prioritise healthy, equitable, local and affordable short chain diets instead of fat corporate profits.  

Steps to reconnect people with nature and to the land must include a return to horticulture. Currently, the UK produces only 5% of its fruit and 50% of vegetables. We also need to stop wasting so much food – in the fields, in the supermarkets and in our fridges. The upside is that the UK has had a bumper harvest this year, but more safeguards need to be put into place to ensure long term food security.  

There is widespread agreement that there is enough food on the planet to feed the projected 2 billion people if we can just get our heads around sustainable and equitable food production.

Hope for a healthy food system

So there is much that is positive to be gleaned from the Square Meal report despite the looming additional problem of climate change.  The combined efforts of the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Food Ethics Council, Sustain, the Wildlife Trusts, the Soil Association, Eating Better and Compassion in World Farming in the Research Collaboration’s has provided a healthy starting point for the much needed conversation about how our food is produced and how public money is used to support farmers.