Can Britain feed itself?

At the moment Britain imports nearly 40 per cent of its food, most of its energy and nearly all of its fibre. In years to come we might have to become more self-sufficient. If so, it would not be for the first time. Many people alive today remember the last time the UK had to resort to home production. Could we do it again? And could we do it with organic agriculture? Simon Fairlie investigates

In 1975, the Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby wrote a short book called Can Britain Feed Itself? His answer was yes, if we eat less meat. The way in which he worked it out was simple, almost a back of the envelope job, but it provides a useful template for making similar calculations. In this article I have adapted and embellished Mellanby’s “basic diet” to show how much land modern UK agriculture might require to produce the food we need under six different agricultural regimes — chemical, organic and permacultural, each with or without livestock.

There were two main reasons why I decided to repeat Mellanby’s analysis. Firstly, like him, I recognize that in the future the UK may have to become a lot more self reliant than it is now. Secondly, I am interested to see how organic agriculture in particular performs, because the most convincing argument advanced against organic farming by its opponents is that it takes up too much land. This is of most concern in poor, highly populated countries such as Bangladesh, but Britain cannot afford to be complacent: it is more densely populated than China, Pakistan, Vietnam or any African country except Rwanda.

There are limitations in this kind of statistical exercise; and I do not claim to have carried it out with either the expertise or the thoroughness that it merits. This is, at best, a back of an A4 envelope job. However since I can find no evidence that anyone with the necessary qualifications and stipend to do justice to the subject has been inclined to take it on, I hope that readers will find my offering better than nothing. The results should not be seen as anything other than a rough guide, and a useful framework for thinking about such matters.

To read the rest of this article, click here