Net Zero farming: A recipe for food insecurity in the UK?

Posted: 4 April 2024 | | No comments yet

In this article, Professor Chris Elliott examines the ramifications of UK’s Net Zero farming policies on food security, amid concerns of impending shortages and environmental impacts.

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By Professor Chris Elliott 

I attended a lecture recently on the topic of food and farming in the UK in relation to the Net Zero objective. It was an insightful and thought-provoking lecture and I learnt some new aspects and challenges that climate change in particular will bring to meeting the target.  

However, the lecture and many other sources of information and personal knowledge did leave me with the feeling that if the UK Government’s Net Zero farming policies continue on the course they are onwithout any meaningful policies on food security, the UK faces a very worrying future in terms of having enough food for the growing population. 

I’m not talking about 10 or 20 years in the future but in a much shorter timeframe. In fact, already been told by food industry insiders that there are projections we could have up to a 50 percent shortage in some fresh produce before the end of the year.  

It appears to me that Net Zero in the UK agriculture system may be obtainable but the unintended consequences will be far reaching in terms of driving food insecurity and overall detrimental to our planetary health. I went on to discus this view after the lecture with a number of senior representatives of the food and farming community that I respect very much and was met with a degree of despondency that I have rarely come across before.  

To put it franklythe UK food and farming policy in terms of Net Zero has been driven by dogma and not science and, in my belief, without common sense. Many commentators, including myself have described Defra as being unfit for purpose government department, not the hard working civil servants within it but some of the scientific advice from within based mainly on ideology and a raft of Secretaries of State who know little or care less about national food security. I’ve tried to summarise the government’s Net Zero policy in terms of farming from my perspective. It is: 

  1. Drive farmers who want to produce food into bankruptcy  
  2. Come up with a scheme that takes more and more farmland out of food production  
  3. Drive the importation of more and more food which will have a much higher carbon footprint than locally produced food 
  4. Claim we are world leading in obtaining farming Net Zero.  

So where does the sound science and common sense around having a sustainable UK food system lie? I read an excellent article by the science writer, author and farmer Matt Ridley written for the  Science for Sustainable Agriculture organisation Science For Sustainable Agriculture. In this piece he points out that Defra Ministers are failing to heed their own scientific advice and the substantial body of scientific evidence which supports a very different approach to protecting biodiversity than the Environmental Land Management (ELM) as they are introducing across the country.

In a piece published in The Times, Ridley quotes one of the UK’s famous farmers, Jeremy Clarksonwriting ‘Why would the British government decide to reduce a farmer’s income and introduce mass starvation? Clarkson’s stance is comparable to my summary, defined by the phrase “the operation went well but the patient died”. 

There is a lot of content in Ridley’s article that I believe should be part of a national debate about how our nation should feed itself in the future. Some I’m very much in favour or and some less so. However, the overarching theme of developing what’s urgently needed through good science and innovation is key.           

My favourite academic in the UK, Professor Sir John Curtice, informs us that the Labour Party have a 99 percent chance of forming the next government. Surely it is time we heard what their policies will be in terms of ensuring the nation has a resilient, environmentally sustainable and affordable food system. I do not exaggerate when I say we are looking at a national emergency that will need decisive action driven by what’s best for our country and our planet. 

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