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Could Britain feed itself? We ask the expert

·3-min read

Rosalind Sharpe, food policy academic and sustainable food advocate, on whether Britain could ever be self-sufficient


The supply chain crisis has already forced supermarkets to use cardboard cutouts to hide gaps on shelves. Now even more Britons are turning to growing their own food. Indeed, according to one small survey, three-quarters of city-based under-25s are growing herbs, fruit and vegetables in gardens, balconies and on windowsills. But could we ever be self-sufficient? And should we want to be? I asked Rosalind Sharpe, food policy academic and sustainable food advocate.

When was the last time Britain fed itself?
Probably the early 19th century. Though it raises the question: where’s the boundary? The British Isles? Europe? Scotland wouldn’t do well alone, because most of the UK’s arable land is in the south. Europe is self-sufficient, broadly speaking.

I can’t think about the EU – I’m still trying to achieve Brexit closure. Could the UK be self-sufficient?
It’s been asked by many people – Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby in 1975 and, more recently, farmer and author Simon Fairlie. They answered yes, but only if we change what we eat.

What were the self-sufficient 19th-century Britons eating?
Mostly a rough form of bread. Tea, and sugar to sweeten it. A bit of bacon fat – maybe some dried fish.

Sounds … carby.
It would have been nutritionally inadequate. It’s why they had to lower the height requirement in the army to 5ft during the Boer war. Importing was the best thing for our diets. Varied, diverse, healthier. It’s why the policy goal is food security, not self-sufficiency, meaning some import. So if there’s a terrible harvest, you have supply lines. That said, we have to look at the climate impact. We grow a lot of grain for animals, but we could grow more fruit and vegetables for human consumption. It’s a scandal that our horticultural production has declined because it’s cheaper to import.

I still feel awe – in the traditional sense of amazement and terror – holding a banana, knowing how far it’s travelled. But with food poverty at high levels, it’s hard to enthuse about homegrown but pricier produce.
The answer to that is the government. So if prices went up, a responsible government might put subsidies in place, or ensure that wages were high enough. Also, we eat a highly processed diet. To make that food here, you need dozens of ingredients, plus the processing tech, plus the packaging material tech, etc. So it’s not as simple as seeing an empty shelf and thinking, “Why can’t we just make or grow that here?”

Related: Is our planet overpopulated? We ask the expert

Which is actually all anyone’s talking about on my neighbourhood forum. It’s quite sweet, actually. I think the people from No 5 are hoping to replace the local supermarket as the street’s spud supplier.
That is interesting to me. People think there are going to be food shortages.

Shortages, yes, but also wanting to do something for the planet, and having spare time in lockdown. My local jumble sale was mostly people touting their garden veg.
Well, that is fantastic.

Yes, I suppose it is. Though I get nervous of everyone going survivalist. What if it starts getting isolationist, almost Trumpy – an attitude of “I don’t need you or society”. Am I paranoid?
Yeah … there are probably a few steps in between growing some potatoes and having a gun on the lawn.


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