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Post  Admin on Wed 1 Oct 2008 - 15:02

About a century ago the UK was largely self-sufficient in producing food. Now we produce only 58% of what we consume. Of course much of this is food that we cannot easily produce here, and we have developed a taste for what in the past would have been considered exotic. As well as that we expect our favourite foods to be available all year round, and therefore think nothing of importing food from the other side of the world. 90% of our fruit and 50% of our vegetables are imported.

In terms of numbers employed, only about 1% of the UK population is employed in agriculture compared with 40% a century ago. The trend, if anything is worsening. Farmers have gone out of business, indeed many are being paid not to cultivate their land with a changed emphasis on conservation and turning land over to other uses. Our waters have been systematically over fished, and now support only a small fraction of the fishermen that once relied on fishing as a livelihood.

We need to ask ourselves whether this is a good thing and, if it isn't, what we should do to change it. Do we want our countryside and seas to be used for working, productive industry ... or are we content for them to become a playground for recreational purposes, while we get our food from elsewhere?

Our whole attitude to food has changed remarkably in the past generation. This is linked—whether as cause, or effect, or a vicious cycle of both—to the way we as consumers now buy our food. The market is dominated by the large supermarket chains and the trend towards pre-packaged and pre-prepared foods means that fewer of us have any real idea of what food production involves.

Of late, there are signs that attitudes to food are changing. There have been well publicized awareness campaigns and many of us are concerned about the way we produce what we eat, and say we would like to improve the quality of our food, but the bottom line for many more of us is simple cost. In the short term, we can't afford to buy better food from more sustainable sources ... but in the long term we can't afford not to. At present we fly fresh fruit, vegetables and even flowers half way round the world, or transport animals hundred of miles for slaughter, then on again to the shops. When carbon costs are factored in through carbon trading we will have to rethink the cost equations.

So should we change things, and if so how? Would our priorities as an independent Wales, with a higher percentage of farmland relative to size of population, be different from those of the rest of the UK? Could we ever get to the point where we valued the quality of the food we eat as much as the French do? How much of what we do is constrained by the agriculture and fisheries policies of the EU, and how should these be changed to suit us better?

Also, as well as the cost and quality of the food itself, how much would things change if we took into account the health costs of poor eating habits?


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