Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The future of Britain’s food

The UK government has announced a new “food security” policy — and it’s not going to make localists happy. Excerpt:

Imported beef. Genetically modified potatoes. The disappearance of those handy labels that tell you just how far your green beans travelled before reaching the grocery store shelf.

This is the stuff of Jamie Oliver’s nightmares – and all of it may come true.

The British government unveiled a national 20-year food-security manifesto Tuesday aimed at safeguarding the future of the country’s food supply, which is in danger of shrinking if certain consumer trends – the favouring of local foods over imported, the rejection of genetically modified food and reliance on “food miles” to measure the environmental cost of food – continue.


The plan argues that the way food is bought and sold in Britain must be revolutionized, and is one of the first of its kind among developed nations. But that may not be for long. International food-policy experts predict similar strategies will be cropping up in developed countries all over the world as the availability of food is increasingly linked to national security.

“We know we are at one of those moments in our history where the future of our economy, our environment, and our society will be shaped by the choices we make now,” Hilary Benn, Britain’s secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said in announcing the strategy at a farming conference in Oxford.

“Food security is as important to this country’s future well-being … as energy security. We know that the consequences of the way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to our planet and to ourselves,” he said.


So, let me get this straight: we have to abandon local food traditions, which are only now starting to recover from mass industrialization, and start importing more of our food from afar, all in the name of national security, environmentalism and solidarity with the poor? Does the British government really consider the country’s small farms as a threat to national security? Amazing. As the friend who e-mailed this story commented drily, “Monsanto wins again.”

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posted January 6, 2010 at 7:33 am

I thought food security was enhanced when a country produced what it ate, instead of importing it from afar – a supply that can be interrupted for political or other reasons. Is Britain also planning to shut down their North Sea drilling platforms and shift to oil imports from the Middle East, in the name of energy-supply security?

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:36 am

Rod, sorry this isn’t on topic, but I heard a really interesting report on NPR that referenced a group call British Muslims for Secular Democracy.
Here’s their website:

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Russell Arben Fox

posted January 6, 2010 at 7:57 am

Hoorah! You’re still a food blogger. Bad news on the food front here, but good news that you’ll still be bringing such news to us.

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Nick the Greek

posted January 6, 2010 at 8:02 am

Quiddity: yes, I thought that too. If I were a cynical person, I might think that the government was using the word “security” in order to play on our fears of terrorism to help sell a policy that benefits no-one except their corporate paymasters.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 8:06 am

How does removing the labels on various food items increase “food security”?

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Roger C.

posted January 6, 2010 at 9:46 am

I don’t think this is as bad as I think you think it is.
Regarding genetic modifications, it’s things like this that enable mass no-till farming, which cuts WAY down on topsoil erosion, along with increasing yield. The food miles label is misleading, also. In the article, it states that transport accounts for only 9% of the food chain’s greenhouse gas emissions. Relying on that single number as the Holy Grail of measuring environmental impact isn’t wise.
Further down in the article, you can see that the document actually “advocates for increased in-country food production and a smaller environmental footprint (via adoption of greener farming techniques, for example, and increased acceptance of “technological innovation” – a phrase some experts are interpreting as advocating the introduction of genetically modified food to the country).” So they’re not arguing against localism, but in favor of openness toward imported food.
It looks like it’s not a bad recognition–the world as a whole (including Britain) is dependent on the world as a whole to feed itself.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 10:02 am

Wouldn’t localized food production within national boundaries actually strengthen national defense? Look what happens when Americans buy imported dog food….

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posted January 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

How can they possibly defend this plan as “national security”? What happens when Israel finally strafes Iran, and Iran successfully blockades Hormuz, ratcheting oil prices up 400%? It’s not likely to last, U.S. carrier groups and Western allies could probably break up any blockade pretty quickly. But it would be enough to rattle the system, and to keep prices fairly high for some time.
I don’t think this is an either-or proposition. We need BOTH food systems. We have to be able to support ourselves WITHOUT imports – everything from potatoes to apples to wheat should be growing within 200 miles of most people’s homes, and we have to have the ability to still feed ourselves if local systems are hit by natural disaster or an E Coli outbreak. In the case of a bacteria outbreak, it should be possible to quickly isolate and shut down imports from individual regions or countries.
(So yes, I’m activating food tracing here, though it needn’t be any more detailed than putting a tracking number on each shipment arriving at a factory.)
The food system needs to be flexible and resilient. Redundancy should be built in. This would be true food security.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 11:40 am

Our friends across the Atlantic are far readier to slap restrictions on imports and trade (as in GM foods) than we are in the States. Even avid localists in the U.S. has interest in actually banning, say, off-season imports of Peruvian asparagus — and if they did, they wouldn’t get much political traction. In Europe, that sort of thing gets much more of a hearing.
Meanwhile, actual food security means having access to adequate food. Britain during WWII, when imports were scarce, was producing about 1,200 calories per day per citizen. How’s that for food security?

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posted January 6, 2010 at 11:44 am

Yes, I can see where letting vast quantities of untraceable food from overseas without sanitation checks and unknown levels of toxic chemicals is a boon to national security. It is of course, when you consider that “nations” are just another dba entity for corporate interests. Sort of how “healthcare reform” in the U.S. morphed into the Private Insurers and Big Pharma Profit Guarantee Act of 2009.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 12:44 pm

You don’t get it.
The very existence of a ‘British Beef’ label on a package of stewing steak reeks of nationalism, even on incipient fascism, to the UK governing class. This new policy reflects the sensibilities both starshii bolsheviki veterans of National Union of Students infighting and ‘conservative’ Eton old boys of ambiguous sexuality. Did you really think the tripartisan elite who is bent on transforming the country demographically would ‘go in for’ locally grown produce?
Conservatism, especially paleo conservatism (of which Crunchiness is a subspecies) begins with demography!
BTW trotsky, one can get all sorts of Kenyan, South African, Spanish etc. produce in UK supermarkets. The difference between the UK and the USA is that the provenance of such food is available to the consumer. I love it when libertarians/globalists argue against the mere availabilities of information.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Hurrah! You still write about food issues!
I agree with your friend who writes “Monsanto wins again!” Britain needs another Peasant Revolt over this! I hope it’s still in the national character to rise and resist such foolishness.
On the other hand, I think the next decade will see BIG battle regarding food sourcing and “security” as the gov’t puts it; from who can sell what to whom and what is LEGAL to eat or not legal to eat, to whether Individual Rights and/or Right to Privacy covers food choice or not, such as those raw oysters in LA and people who prefer raw milk and pastured beef. There’s a big lawsuit in Canada right now over a farmer named Michael Schmidt who has a raw dairy operation.
Hold on to your seat if you eat outside of the box, folks!

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Richard Barrett

posted January 6, 2010 at 1:45 pm

One is reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis…
“Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood — they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet…are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.”

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posted January 6, 2010 at 1:48 pm

@RAF: Hoorah! You’re still a food blogger.
I myself was always here for the crunchy, not for the con.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I’ll be taking bets on how long it will take for the “world” to claim America’s farmlands for the sake of “food security” and come to make good on that claim if we head down the road this report seems to be recommendeding, albiet in its most initial stages. I am talking about what lies underneath the “we are all in this together” and “food security for all and all for food security” talk. What will happen when Americans refuse (as Americans surely will unless we are a totally different people by then) to voluntarily go along with the commandeering of our agricultural lands for the sake of world-wide collective agriculture? I know it sounds paranoid, but I have no faith in the good will of human beings who believe they are saving the world through advance bureaucratic planning. I have the same nightmares about the green saviors of the world coming for us eventually if we don’t get with the world-wide program of carbon controls. If someone thinks that the choice is between having the world police seizing control of the US or allowing the end of the world to happen, what choice will that person make? That is why I worry about the do-gooders of the world in positions of policy making power. Much better to have people with a much smaller more local focus playing for much smaller stakes. In the end, that is the path we should be on for everyone to do better. The world collective will never acheive anything but misery for all.

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the stupid Chris

posted January 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm

If “food security” requires upon foreign imports we have a new rationalization for war.
So not only Monsanto wins, but so do all those who profit from those disposable items known as ammunition and weapons.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The proposed food security plan has a lot of interesting elements – such as recycling of food waste to be used to create energy – no more food waste in landfills. The plan also calls on consumers to buy British food, eat more seasonal produce, and grow their own fruit and veg. So I am not so sure it is an attack on localism.
The Tories are calling for an ombudsmen – supposedly to break the power of the giant supermarket chains which can force prices on small farmers that are harmful to the farmer.
I love the Brit system of allotments – which is so popular that there are waiting lists. Wish we had that here in the US – which do a lot to promote our food security

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the stupid Chris

posted January 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm

That was relatively incoherent.
If ‘food security” DEPENDS upon foreign imports….

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posted January 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I don’t know where you shop, but every piece of produce at my local Safeway is labeled with the country of origin. And as far as I know that’s a national standard.

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posted January 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I can see arguments either way: localized food production means any terror plot against the food supply would only impact a small area; on the other hand, localized food production makes coordination of national health and safety standards more onerous.
On the whole, I’d prefer greater localization as, as other have said, it would decrease transportation costs, the need for oil, and the need for military involvement when global food supplies are placed at risk (for any reason — war, famine, tsunami).

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posted January 6, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I wish I could say that this is a dying policy of a government which is about to be swept from office. (Thank God – Blair and Brown have been the most destructive prime ministers in history.) Unfortunately, elected politicians in this country have surrendered much of their power to bureaucrats, corporatist entities, the European Union and the like – so I fear this sort of nonsense is going to run on and on.

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Geoff G.

posted January 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Some more detail from the article that wasn’t quoted above:
Within Britain, it advocates for increased in-country food production and a smaller environmental footprint (via adoption of greener farming techniques, for example, and increased acceptance of “technological innovation” – a phrase some experts are interpreting as advocating the introduction of genetically modified food to the country).
This could mean all kinds of things, some “crunchy,” others not. GM food is one interpretation, and is probably not so crunchy (although I personally have no objection to it, except that I’m a bit leery of gene patents; farmers have been practicing genetic modification since agriculture began).
However, contrary to some of the comments posted above, it also means that food production in the UK would be increased not reduced. And for the more crunchy out there, a smaller environmental footprint would imply less use of chemical fertilizer and increased reliance on organic methods.
It warns consumers that an overzealous dedication to buying local – and avoiding imported foods – will have a negative economic impact on often poorer exporting countries if the trend continues.
This is true. International trade has all kinds of benefits, not the least of which is the creation of industry in poorer countries. And agriculture is often one of the first industries to benefit (and it also means we can have our fruits and veggies out of season if we wish).
The report also takes aim at an over-reliance on “food miles.” For years, laws have mandated that British-sold products be labelled with indicators of their carbon footprint.
However, continuing to use food miles as a main means of calculating the environmental impact of certain foods is not sustainable in the food regime of the future, according to the report, because transport accounts for so little (9 per cent) of the food chain’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
To me, this sounds like a more accurate representation of the carbon footprint, not an attempt to hide data. I’m not sure if the UK has country-of-origin labeling laws (and I do encourage those; it encourages those countries to have better regulation and enforcement in place in order to protect their “brand”), but if you do want to take carbon footprint into account when you buy, it makes sense that you have the complete picture when making a determination.
Fundamentally, when determining agricultural policy, the very first consideration should always be providing enough food to meet the caloric needs of your population. That’s likely the bottom line with this report.
A close second, you should ensure that that food is of sufficient quality nutritionally. In other words, a healthy variety of fruits and vegetables, availability of whole grains of various kinds, etc.
Third, sufficient, nutritionally complete food should be easily affordable to as many people as possible.
Finally, meeting the demand for all of the consumer choices out there (nifty local cheeses, organic local produce, fresh goat’s milk from down the road, whatever).
I know the more “crunchy” among us might object to making their gourmanderie the lowest priority. I’ll point out that there’s no reason (for the present) why all four needs cannot be met. Besides, if you think your organic, locally-produced chèvre is more important than ensuring everyone has access to a decent diet, then please allow me to introduce you to your doppelgänger, Marie Antoinette.
(At this point, I’ll mention one more time that the easiest method to ensure we continue to meet all four requirements is to reduce and/or reverse population growth. But of course, we wouldn’t want to start pointing out that the Octomoms of the world are irresponsible, now would we?)

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posted January 6, 2010 at 5:45 pm

The actual document appears to be here:

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posted January 6, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Upon a quick perusal, the actual plan seems to have a number of crunchy elements, e.g., “The popularity of ‘grow-your-own’ has risen • significantly over recent years. An estimated 33% of people already grow or intend to grow their own vegetables2. Growing food – at home, in a community garden or allotment – can produce a number of other benefits including better mental and physical health, bringing people together and improved skills.”

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Fake Fan Base

posted January 6, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Just had a quick scan of the document and it’s a bit depressing. It seems very technocratic and rational and a long way from the romance of food and place. Food is frivolous and sexy, not measured and accounted for gulp by gulp.
It’s therefore politically quite bold which may just be a gap the Tories can exploit if they dare. Whilst the document asserts the importance of place in the world and also its interdependence, I can imagine that the big companies are considering what post modern stripped down business models are on the menu. Let’s hope they don’t remove the taste.
Next time I’ll have my Fish and Chips wrapped in the FT. Is that sustainable?

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posted January 7, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Geoff G,
I’m actually positive about genetically modified foods, and I don’t really get why a lot of Europeans seem to oppose them on principle. I don’t like the gene patents idea, and I would prefer that these technologies be in the public domain or controlled by universities and governments rather than by big capitalism. But the ideas behind the genetic modification technology itself seem to me to be reasonable, potentially highly beneficial for both people and the environment, and not actually that ‘unnatural’. Horizontal gene transfer across taxa does occur in nature, though rarely. One of the common technologies for effecting gene transfer actually does rely on an organism, Agrobacterium, that does this sort of thing on its own in nature.
The addition of insect resistance genes (i.e. the Bt toxin genes) into crops seems like a good thing to me: it allows you not to have to use pesticides, which _is_ actually a tremendous threat to the environment and to long term susceptibility. Yes, organic or reduced-pesticide agriculture are very good things, but realistically most farmers growing corn or cotton, in the absence of the GM technology, would be using pesticides, and anything that allows us to minimize pesticide use is a good thing.
I’m all for people growing their own food and eating locally, of course. And I do think we would be better off if more of us were involved at least part time in growing our own vegetables and raising our own rabbits or whatever.

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