Guest blog – Food security by Roderick Leslie

DSCN0186 Roderick LeslieAlthough I worked as a forester I actually studied Agricultural & Forest Science under the great agricultural educationalist Mike Soper. Even back in the 70s I remember the question ‘where does it all end?’ was being asked – the risks of flash-over resistance to antibiotics from pigs to humans as a result of them being fed as routine feed supplements had already been recognised. I’m actually a huge fan of technology – and equally terrified by its misuse.


The NFU are at it again waving the scary ‘Food Security’ flag. And, in the spirit of the times it is ‘over-emphasised environmental rather than production outcomes’ that are to blame. So what’s the real story? Well, when I hear food security mentioned it is starvation that springs to mind, and of course that is what NFU intend. Britain’s self-sufficiency is slipping, we are at the mercy of world markets.

What the ‘food security’ message carefully avoids is that self-sufficiency is only slipping in terms of our super-luxurious diet: most of the grain from the arable prairies of central and eastern England, the heart of NFU’s agri-business support, goes to feed animals to produce meat, not directly to feed people. At best (if you can call a factory chicken shed ‘best’), grain converts to nutritional value in meat at a ratio of 4 to 1 but 6 to 1 is more realistic. The extraordinary reality is that Britain today would be at least 100% self-sufficient under the famous ‘wartime diet’. And before we get too excited about world trade, it’s worth bearing in mind that France next door produces nearly 3 times as much food for roughly the same population size.

Food security is also rather selective: was it mentioned when biofuels looked like the next big opportunity? In the end, thanks amongst others to RSPB, super-inefficient oils seed rape for biofuels only covered 60,000 hectares – but suggest that area for nature and there’d have been an outcry! What about solar panels covering the countryside? Or Defra’s comment that it is ‘opening up record numbers of international markets to export our produce’. But wasn’t this meant to be all about food for us to eat here, in Britain?

And there is the secret, and this is where I do have some sympathy with NFU: volatile international trade under our present no-holds barred (unless you’re a tax-dodging mega-corporation, in which case you’re exempted) capitalism. It is a real threat: dairying in the UK is under immediate danger from a world glut in milk products and the stock-market driven battle between our supermarkets. There is a real and huge issue here but it is nothing to do with already inadequate ‘green’ rules for farming: should our food security really be at the mercy of an increasingly frenetic and irresponsible commodity trading? I don’t think so. I think we need to renew the pact society made with farming in 1947: never again to allow our farming – and food security- to slump into the terrible decline of the 1930s, despite the warnings of WW1. But I believe passionately that it should not be on the basis of increasingly single minded production-only attempts to beat a threatening world market.

There is another way – and we’ve seen it at Hope Farm and through the farming heroes featured on this blog. Actually, I think they are double heroes. Remember that to think about the environment you have to start by being an above average farmer – and many above average farmers will decide to bank the proceeds – but not these guys. They are putting exceptional skills and their own money into the sort of countryside we all want and they deserve our wholehearted gratitude – and political support. And the worst thing of all is just how tiny the percentage of production is that has to be given up to dramatically reverse the decline in farmland birds – nowhere near the generous 10% in RSPB’s Fair to Nature standard, nor the 20% NFU reckons self-sufficiency has fallen by since the 1980s – just imagine what 5% of our farmed area could do not just for birds but for flood prevention, places for people, reduction in diffuse pollution and our still beautiful countryside. Then picture what NFU are asking for: further stripping out what little is left. Surely a stark, and easy, choice.

Photo: adactio via wikimedia commons
Photo: adactio via wikimedia commons
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17 Replies to “Guest blog – Food security by Roderick Leslie”

  1. "super-inefficient oils seed rape"

    Well at least the EU is grudgingly admitting its stupidity by capping the use of food crops in biofuels - but there shouldn't be any. Nor maize or any other combineable crop for use in AD or ethanol. At around 30% of production there is a huge waste food resource - including crops ploughed-in because they are "out of spec"- to fuel centralised AD plants without the all the environmental burdens of dedicated cropping. Used cooking oil is like rocket fuel for AD and is better in a digester than a sewer and it doesn't kill birds and bats or blight the countryside and the energy produced is not intermittent. Our choice instead is to cut down forests in the USA, pelletise them, put them in ships and burn them at Drax.

    In defence of OSR - it is used very efficiently as the pressed cake is used as animal feed once the ~40% oil is extracted, but it's the pathetic yield/hectare and the high nitrogen and pesticide requirements that make it so inefficient as a crop. We could increase the efficiency by harvesting the wood pigeon crop that consumes vast amounts of it - but we don't. We could also limit the amount grown to that required for food-oil and industrial use - but we don't.

    Instead we subsidise the production of food surplus to human requirements - either for conversion to fat children or for export - at the expense of our limited countryside. Yes it should be about food for us to eat here in Britain - so we should be growing more food for direct consumption, for which we need to overhaul our agricultural model. The wheat, wheat, barley, oilseed rape one is no longer fit for purpose. How long since you popped down to the shops for a nice pound of wheat?

    Good blog RL

  2. Yorkshire pudding is the answer!! Brought up in Yorkshire the main starter was Yorkshire pudding with as much as you could eat with lots of gravy. The idea was to fill you up so that you did not need any meat for the next course. I loved it with plenty of onions in the gravy and Yorkshire puddings the full size of the oven not those little puds shown in the picture. With even more gravy. Who needs meat!!

  3. Quite clearly Mark Avery's blog is now becoming a cooking programme. I like that, and look forward to the Filbert Cobb guide to woodpigeon recipes and Wiltshire farm foods. Although Ronny Corbett is already doing that one.

  4. Great blog - thanks.

    The NFU are notoriously inconsistent in their arguments, the biofuels - food production issue is a prime example as Roderick correctly highlights.

    If the NFU was genuinely committed to improving the nation’s food self-sufficiency, then surely they would seriously concern themselves with addressing the moribund state of much of the UK's soil and also getting to the bottom of why cereal and OSR yields have stagnated in the last 10-15 years. The poor state of our soils must be a major contributory factor behind this plateauing out of yields.

    Soil compaction in grassland can reduce DM yield by around 20-25% - so in the typical grassland system this lost yield contains the energy equivalent of 3500 - 4000 litres of milk per ha or 650kg of livestock liveweight gain! Then there are all of the other environmental impacts to consider...

    Yet any serious moves to address declining SOM, and other forms of soil degradation such as compaction, are vigorously opposed and decried as needless over-regulation and red-tape by the Stoneleigh Park head bangers. You really couldn't make it up.

    Do we never hear the NFU grumbling about 'horsiculture'? Given their concern with increasing the nations food self-sufficiency one would think that the equine sector would be the target of one or several of their arrows.
    There are approx. 1.35 million horses that are kept in the UK and a 500 kg horse needs approximately 1 ha* of land to meet its turn out and forage requirements.
    Assuming the average weight of a horse is 350kg (which is a generous assumption), this equates to 945,000 hectares of land being used for equestrian purposes or an area equivalent to nearly 5.2% of the UK's 18.3 million hectares of land currently registered to agricultural holdings.

    So why doesn't the NFU have much, if anything, to say about this? Perhaps this is because a sizeable number of their members make very good money from flogging hay and haylage to horse owners and probably also because many of these horses are owned by NFU members or folks who are insured through NFU mutual. It's never a good idea to bite the hands that feed you - far better to vent one's spleen at nature conservation instead, after all it's a time served tactic which has worked well for them well over the years!

    *National Research Council (2007): Nutrient Requirements for Horses, 6th Edition.

  5. I really would know where to start with all those comments apart to say that some of them are rather wide of the mark. The biofuels, AD argument confuses calorific values with food calories. Our lifestyle takes calories to sustain it be they food, fuel, used in manufacturing and so on, ultimately everything has calorific value and comes ultimately from carbon.

    On the wider points about how apparenty useless the farming industry is and in this case the NFU especially, it might be worth pointing out how perilously small the knowledge base is in UK agriculture. Assuming we provide enough calories for between 60/70% of the UK population of 64 million from a base of around 40k arable farmers we can't be that stupid ? This figure also doesn't take into account that within arable farming some 10% of the total provide over 50% of the output given the restructuring of the industry over the last two decades or so.

    On the points of husbandry, agronomy and bureaucracies the thought that Defra, Natural England, the EA or Brussels have any technical ability in agronomy or soil management is somewhat hopeless. State supported R&D in agriculture finished in the 1980,s in the UK with the demise of ADAS as a public funded body. Agricultural research has been limited to the private sector who certainly don't share their research with the public sector. The result of this is a public sector which has a knowledge base which terminated in terms of evolving some thirty years ago in generalised terms...

    I'm sure all of this will come as a bit of a shock but just to cheer you up have a look at the web site run by BASE UK.

    1. "have a look"

      I did - in March 2014. My impression at the time was that the organisation "... lacks momentum and direction and although a worthy endeavour delivers little that is new or enlightening". A year later nothing appears to have changed.

    2. Sorry Julian but due to an obvious IT problem I missed the comments ".....about how apparenty useless the farming industry is..." and in particular the one that claimed that "....that Defra, Natural England, the EA or Brussels have any technical ability in agronomy or soil management".

      I thought this was a blog about the NFU..

      I agree re Defra, NE and the EA, but on the whole I did agree with the proposals set out in the European Soil Framework Directive. Didn't you?

      I am fully aware of BASE thanks, for a number of years I have been reading articles and viewing presentations by Frederic Thomas / ECAF etc. Correct me if I'm wrong but doesn't much of their work tie in very closely to the objectives of the now dead-in-the-ground ESFD?

  6. Hi Earnest, to be honest I've no idea what the link is between BASE and ESFD and I don't see it as a major incentive as there is no EU policy on soils, carbon etc. which has any real bearing on BFP or SPS issues. We have the utterly useless "greening" element of the new support system which is frankly pointless. We have at least a reference to cover and catch crops with the EFAreas but the rules on mixes are unworkable so unlikely to be taken up farms such as ours who have been using cover crops, conservation tillage and no-till for some time. I come back to my point about the knowledge base in that its in the private sector that things are being driven forward. BASE UK are just one element within an evolving sector which is massively out in front of the public or EU regulatory bodies and the NGO's.

    On a personal note or view point my opinion is that if the NGO's and regulatory elements could just get their heads round this they would be amazed at what's going on however they just haven't been interested. We were among the first companies to adopt min-till on a large scale and I could see the massive effect that was going to occur on farming structure at the time; my thoughts on this latest no-till/conservation agriculture techniques are that the next change is going to be even more dramatic than that (min-till) was. I still winze when I hear things like 5% EFA isn't enough for wildlife as if it was a binary choice when cover crops, companion cropping, carbon management, SOM management, IPM, residue cover, (sorry list is endless) has a MASSIVE effect on wildlife and especially farmland birds. Anyhow enough rambling, no ones interested on this blog expect you !

    1. Julian - sorry to come in late on this. If you do revisit this blog and your comment, I'd be really grateful if you could point me to the research on the effects of these new techniques on farmland birds.

  7. Julian - I'm interested ! From my own experience I'd support you strongly in seeing ways through via new approaches/technology - what scares me, and where we have gone wrong, is in unrestrained commercially driven technologies like GM as it is today - NOT what it could be. My experience in charge of pesticide application for the Forestry Commission convinced me of the opportunities for massive, positive change in the way we manage land - but the incentives aren't there & I don't think our generalist civil service, beholden to agri-business for its technical advice is going to realise the potential benefits.

  8. Roderick, yes I agree totally with what you say. In some respects we are the victims of our own success in that agriculture seems to be from an outside perspective simple and repetitive. ELS or Stewardship is a perfect illustration of this as it was a bolt on extra to a system which NGO's and the public sector assumed they understood. They reached those conclusions based on a knowledge base which had passed out of public ownership some two decades earlier. From a personal point of view I see it day by day where stewardship options provide very limited benefit in comparison to non stewardship management which covers the whole rather than a small percentage of the farmed area. Compare this approach to France's policy on agri-environment and I'd suggest the future direction on say farmland birds doesn't look too good in the UK. Frankly I blame some very well meaning NGO's for this actually who have completely missed the mark in this regard.

    (Just as an example, this winter the amount of birds in some of our cover crops, especially mustard, had to be seen to be believed. I walked several of them at the beginning of February and I was staggered at what I saw; yellow hammers, finches, snipe, in really large numbers.)

  9. Alan, sorry just seen your question. No I can't, I'm not aware than any work has been done on conservation-agriculture in terms of actual indexes. My observations are based entirely on my own experience. I would suggest that you might try the following link as the French are way ahead of us on this: Its a complicated area of farming and I think you will struggle to find a base point to extrapolate from.


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