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Feed the world

PUBLISHED: 13:23 18 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

The Working Horse Trust at Eridge Park, near Tunbridge Wells

The Working Horse Trust at Eridge Park, near Tunbridge Wells

We're used to a land of plenty, with famines restricted to Third World countries, but now people all round the globe are being threatened with severe food shortages - how can Kent help?

Food security - these two little words have implications that threaten the very survival of mankind. One of the best definitions

is 'when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a productive and healthy life.'

Of course, the term isn't new - it was significant during the Second World War when the survival of this country was dependent on our merchant fleet's ability to out manoeuvre U-boats in order to bring in food. The difference now is that the entire planet is faced with new, and multiplying, dangers.

Until fairly recently 'famines' were restricted to Third World countries suffering the consequences of failed crops or the effects of wars. The developed world, largely unaffected, provided different forms of relief aid. Now, if the predictions of scientists and statisticians are correct, people all round the globe are threatened with severe shortages of food in the not too distant future.

These new threats result from a combination of factors. Firstly, the world population, increasing at an alarming rate, is estimated to reach more than nine billion by 2050.

Secondly, people in Third World countries are consuming more meat and other animal-related foods, the production of which is generally less efficient, in terms of land usage, than the crops on which they are traditionally dependent. At the same time, rising sea levels caused by ice melting in the Arctic are predicted to result in loss of valuable agricultural land and other land will then have to be found to relocate homes and businesses affected by the flooding.

Over the last 20 years we have witnessed huge changes in terms of how, and where, our food is produced. The Common Agricultural Policy has not, in general terms, been favourable to British farmers - at the same time, the emergence of the global food market resulted in huge imports of food from countries with much lower production costs than those in the UK.

The 'benefits' of this global market included all-year-round availability of most fruit and vegetables - but this then destroyed seasonality, which further reduced demand for traditional UK-grown produce.

Almost all the world's leading scientists agree that the carbon emissions created by industrialisation are accelerating global warming. Therefore, we need to reduce the carbon emissions that result from transporting food all round the world.

At the same time, surely the developed countries such as our own have a moral responsibility to consider how this will affect developing nations whose economies depend on exports?

No finite worldwide consensus has been achieved in relation to targets for carbon emission reduction - and there is even less agreement about how reductions can actually be made.

Meanwhile, the energy demands of rapidly developing countries such as China and India are growing at a fast pace, while the world's fossil fuel resources are reducing at an alarming rate - and current farming methods are heavily energy-dependent.

Many solutions, some radical, are being mooted in relation to food security. Some scientists suggest future generations will have to give up eating meat so that land currently used for livestock production can be more viably utilised for producing cereals.

Some leading authorities in this country believe it will be necessary to plough up our National Parks in order to increase available farmland. Others advocate returning to the traditional farming methods that would increase the need for manpower and educe energy requirements.

On the opposite side of the coin, some analysts contend that genetic modification (GM) and intensive methods of agriculture present the only really viable option.

Looked at in more parochial terms, how do these enormous issues affect us here in Kent? Could we produce sufficient food to become self sufficient and feed everyone living in the county? And what other issues do we need to consider?

Kent is the main gateway between the rest of the UK and Europe, but changes in the ways we source our food would drastically alter the flow of through-traffic. This would be beneficial as far as de-clogging our roads and cutting carbon emissions are concerned, but it might have less desirable influences on local economy.

Do Kent's farmers and growers have the knowledge, ability and wherewithal for the substantial increase in production that will be needed? The fact that we are a county of mixed farming indicates a multiplicity of skills - and there's another vital factor: Kent is home to some of the UK's best farmers and growers.

Are there any very obvious shortfalls in this equation? Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, director of finance and resources at Hadlow, one of the country's leading land-based colleges, believes that education and training will be crucially important, but he is concerned about the misconceptions surrounding the farming industries.

"The traditional pattern of farms passing down through the generations, farmer-to-son or daughter, began to disappear during the very lean years. Confidence is, quite rightly, returning and programmes such as the Fresh Start initiative designed to establish continuity are playing an important part in recruitment," he says.

However, Mark is adamant that greater engagement of schools, in both the private and state sectors, is a crucial factor in achieving food security. "All too frequently, schools dismiss farming as irrelevant. They often fail to understand the broad and exciting opportunities the land-based sector offers in management, research and development, marketing and other related support services.

"Nor in general do they have the vision to see that farming must necessarily be re-established as the leading industry. And if the industry is to meet the enormous challenges, farmers must play their part by evaluating their evolving needs in terms of staffing, skills and support."

Stuart Jakeman, 22, is county chairman of Kent Young Farmers and a member of a family that has farmed successfully for three generations. By and large, Stuart remains upbeat. "This is an exciting opportunity for agriculture," he says. "The challenge is to inspire the next generation into the agricultural industry, and the key is to ensure keen, well-trained new blood."

Stuart points out that Kent has 22 YFCs with an age range of 10 to 26. As well as providing a taster and stepping stone into the industry, the clubs have very good social programmes - and new members are always very welcome.

Dr Howard Lee, who heads up Hadlow College's degree programme in Sustainable Land Management, aims to prepare specialists in a new, exciting and demanding discipline.

Undergraduates of widely ranging ages are being trained to find ways of creating food security in light of the enormous challenges the world faces. Once qualified, they can expect job opportunities around the world.

But there is another, and crucially important, side of the coin. Dr Lee is passionate about the need for communities to work together in the production of food. What are often termed 'grower groups' are already springing up all over the country, and 'urban agriculture' initiatives are taking off in a big way in our towns and cities.

We face imminent challenges in relation to provision of food security. They won't disappear - indeed, forecasters' predictions are worsening and urgent action is needed.

Much of our policy in relation to agriculture is dictated by Brussels and the British government has relatively limited powers, and while it is true that British farmers benefit from subsidies, the UK actually hands out more than it receives.

New EU legislation (some beneficial, some questionable, some quite ridiculous) is putting additional pressures on our farmers.

Everyone can play a part in creating food security. Joining a grower group or starting a kitchen garden will help, but the most important thing of all is to give our farmers the confidence they need to double their efforts. And this means buying British food - especially that which is produced in Kent.

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