Can the UK Feed Itself At No Extra Cost?

Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash

A few years ago I went to Maltby Street Market with my fiancé. It’s the kind of place some poor content serf would call a “foodie mecca”. It does have some pretty great food and booze. It is also very expensive.

The crowd there is a mix of tourists and men who look like they’ve just nipped in on the tube from Sloane Square; all-white trousers, reflective sunnies in the summer and pullovers tied over the shoulders.

On one side of the market you have the railway line, on the other the council estates of Bermondsey (just behind the new builds is St Saviours Estate) and in the middle lots of sauced up rich folk.

We munched our food among the tourists while sitting on the pavement outside. A man approached slowly on his bicycle accompanied by his son on foot. Greasy hair under a grey cap, worn out Reeboks and a few days of stubble covering a red-blotched face.

He wobbled along on his bike while his son was throwing those firecracker cherry bombs on the floor cackling at the little explosions.

“You disgust me!” He shouted at two of the women who looked like tourists. They gave their best British impression and pretended he wasn’t there. The rest of us did the same. “There is a full-time nurse up there” he gestured to the estate “who has to go to a fucking food bank every week to feed her kids. She can’t afford to eat. You’re all disgusting.”

“Yeah!” The boy grinned while chucking another cherry bomb.

It’s the only time I’ve encountered someone in real life talk about food banks who wasn’t on the news. However, I’ve almost certainly been in close proximity to people who use food banks almost every day.

Food Issues

In the UK we are unable to ensure everyone is provided with enough affordable food. According to FareShare, 8.4 million people in the UK struggle to afford food. Of those, 4.7m are in severely food-insecure households. A huge 19% of children in the UK live in food-insecure households, with 10% living in severe food-insecure households. This has life-long impacts from physical, academic and mental perspectives and entrenches a cycle of inequality.

The man on the bicycle had a point. It’s a disgrace that there are so many people who can’t eat properly.

Regardless of your personal perspective on what the cause of food poverty is, I’d hope that we’d all agree that children and adults should not struggle to get food, ever.

Not Grabbing It By The Roots

There are several different paths and ideas to ensure children and adults get fed. Discourse is usually centred on food waste and charity. Attacking both of these issues are positive steps but they are symptoms of a broken system rather than the root causes.

Increasing people’s living wage or providing a universal basic income is another option and would enable people to actually afford the food they want. It’s probably safe to say that a large section of our society would suggest that “we can’t afford it”.

A New Approach To End Hunger

There is another option to end hunger for good that is affordable. It is an option which would not increase government expenditure. How? We could change how the government distributes the current subsidy to farmers by prioritising subsidies for more cost-effective foods therefore increasing the availability of all food and nutrition.

By reforming the subsidy we pay the agricultural industry, we could feed every single person in the UK for every single day of the year without changing taxation. This would not directly require an increase in taxes for anyone, it is a change within the current tax and subsidy level. Not one child or adult would have to go hungry.

The Farming Subsidy

The farming subsidies were introduced after World War 2 when the war exposed the fragility of European food supplies. In short, they were created to ensure we all had enough food to eat. Now we are failing to keep everyone fed. Therefore, the subsidy is failing.

The current system pays farm owners subsidies based on the size of their farm’s land, irrespective of what that farm produces. This means that we are not incentivising food production which is cost-effective at delivering calories and nutrients.

We currently pay farmers to simply exist without consideration of how we feed society or the negative externalities of farming i.e. its huge impact on the environment (although the government is trying to incentivise “green” practices).

Make It Cost-Effective

To be more cost-effective, we could instead use the subsidy only on food types which deliver greater nutritional value per pound spent. An incredibly simple way this could be achieved is by the government purchasing the most nutritionally cost-effective food types from farmers at market prices.

As farmers rely on the subsidy to survive, they would be incentivised to produce the cost-effective food that the government wanted to purchase.

Under this system, farm owners could continue to create whatever food they want. Private buyers e.g. supermarkets or food manufacturers could continue to buy whatever food they want. The subsidy would be used alongside private buyers as if the government were any other private customer.

To the public it would be very similar to how we experience healthcare in the UK; we are provided the NHS and we have the option of getting private treatment.

As is demonstrated below, the current subsidy of £3.34bn is already more than what is needed to buy enough food for every single person in the UK. In this scenario, the average person need not do anything. This means no extra tax, no need to donate to charity and no need to worry about food waste (although they should do the latter anyway).

If anything, this might mean less tax is required.

How Could Britain Feed Itself At No Extra Cost?

There are 2 main questions to consider with this approach:

By prioritising certain food types, do we have enough land to grow or rear all the food we require?

This one is relatively straightforward and simply asks if we have the space to create enough food to sustain our population of 66.8m people 365 days a year.

By prioritising certain food types, can we provide enough calories and nutrition for each individual with the subsidy we have without agriculture losing out?

This is where the balancing act comes in. Without raising tax and without lowering subsidies to farmers can we provide enough basic calories and nutrients to the public?

Minimum Calories & Nutrition

What are enough calories and enough nutrition? The government recommended vegetable quota of 400g of vegetables per day will be used to ensure we are providing a right balance.

For calories, the NHS recommends 2,000 per day for women and 2,500 per day for men; 2,250 for a simple average. However, this seems high when considering the average UK man’s height is 5 ft 9 inches. Using the BMI calculation, this would mean the average ideal weight of a UK man is 66kg meaning to maintain weight we would need an average of 1,859 calories per day assuming a sedentary lifestyle.

For women, the average height is 5 ft 3 which would mean an ideal weight of around 56kg. This equates to a calorie requirement of 1403 per day to maintain weight. Averaging the 2, assuming women and men are 50/50 split, we get an average daily intake of 1,641 calories per day.

While this seems small it is probably a fairly safe figure. First, around 16% of the population is under 18, these children will not need as many calories.

Secondly, the calorie minimum is based on people having a low-activity lifestyle/sedentary lifestyle and we are sadly a relatively sedentary nation. Although 60% of the population is active, exercising at least 150 minutes, the most popular activity is walking. Walking for 150 minutes per week adds about 85 calories per day to the calorie requirement for those that do exercise. This brings us to a range from 1,641 calories to 1,726 calories per day. This is generous as 40% of people are inactive.

Remember the intention here is to provide the minimum amount of food required to everyone for free so that no one need to go hungry. Also, this is an average actual calories per person could easily change on a case-by-case basis.

The Land Question

Luckily for us, the first question has already been explored and roughly (as the author puts it) answered in Simon Fairlie’s article “Can Britain Feed Itself” in Land Magazine. Simon explores many different agricultural systems and concludes that we could feed ourselves if we dramatically reduced the amount of meat we ate.

We’ll call this the Some Meat diet from this point.

Simon goes on to find that, while we could have enough land and keep meat consumption going, albeit much less meat, a chemical vegan diet is easily the most economical. This is important as the more land we can save and make useful in other ways e.g. rewilding, new housing or renewable energy is crucial to many other initiatives and also important for offsetting any external costs of redistributing the subsidy.

For those wondering, by “chemical” Fairlie meant non-organic. Organic systems were the least land efficient, which is one of the bigger arguments against the idea that we should all eat organic produce.

Chemical Vegan vs. Some Meat On The Land

A vegan diet would leave us with 15.6 million spare hectares of arable land vs 7.6 million spare hectares for the Some Meat diet. That’s the size of 50 Londons or 11.3 million football pitches. That’s a huge saving and, more importantly, a lot of land which could be invested in for potentially better uses (Simon indeed challenges vegans to come up with those very use cases).

Chemical Vegan vs. Some Meat: What Can We Afford?

The Assumptions

To understand which diet we could afford, we need to put in place some basic requirements. We have the subsidy amount (£3.34bn), the UK population of 66.m, farm gate prices found in the Defra agriculture dataset, a minimum number of calories we want to target (1,641 per day), a minimum amount of protein and the minimum vegetable requirement (400g of vegetables per day) to ensure we can meet people’s nutritional needs. If we can hit these goals it would mean that everyone is fed well.

Calories per £

To maximise cost-effectiveness, we need to look beyond just the price of food and assess the calorific return on investment e.g. calories per £ spent. In other words, how many calories can we buy depending on food type?

A glance at the chart above should indicate which diet is going to be most successful at providing our nutritional needs. Meat, which is the average of beef, lamb and chicken, is the least cost-effective option, while oats provide the most calories per pound spent. Vegetables (defined here as a mix of onions and parsnips) are less effective at driving calories but they are a requirement from a health perspective. Potatoes don’t count (sadly), but beans and peas do contribute to the vegetable requirement.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, while beans and peas look similar to milk on the chart above, they are actually far more cost-effective, approximately 3x more cost-effective as can be seen more clearly in the next chart.

Despite the obvious cost-effectiveness of oats, legumes and vegetables we shall first explore the diets laid out in Simon’s document and attempt to optimise them where needed.

The Some Meat Diet

Let’s take Simon Fairlie’s “some meat” diet first as this is closest to what the majority of UK citizens currently consume. The amount of meat that the diet allows for is 70g of meat per day. At 2019 prices, this would mean that the meat allocation alone would cost £3.4bn, which takes out the entire subsidy alone. If we were trying to fund the amount of milk suggested (including butter and cheese), which is 1 pint per day, at the 2019 prices that would have amounted to £4bn. i.e. more than subsidy itself. (Milk and Meat Prices Found in Defra datasets chapter 8).

Cost Calculation Example

The calories that the milk and meat combined would provide amounts to 19% of the total daily allocation while costing 228% of the subsidy. The diet does not work from a cost perspective because the calorific return per pound spent is not good enough when it comes to meat and dairy.

The amount of meat consumed could be lowered; the number of calories that Simon Fairlie’s article accounts for is much too high at 2,767 given the ideal number of calories for a man being 1,859 calories per day to maintain that weight.

This means we could probably dial down the “some meat” diet down by a third. That leads to the meat and dairy cost alone coming in at £5bn, still hugely more than the entire subsidy by itself, for a pretty paltry amount of meat and milk (incl. cheese and butter).

Further, taking into account the daily recommended allowance of vegetables is 400g per day. The cost of providing that portion, in what is one of the cheapest ways (using peas, fava beans and a small amount of other vegetables rather than just peas illustrated above), would be £1.99bn. We cannot afford to provide this small amount of meat and diary alongside our minimum vegetable requirement.

We are left with the chemical vegan diet.

Costs of the chemical vegan diet

Given the fractional costs of plants relative to meat and dairy, the UK government could quite easily provide a balanced chemical vegan diet, including the 400g recommended of vegetables per day, all within the subsidy.

To see what’s possible let’s look at what the diet could return without the 400g vegetable requirement; option 1 purely optimises toward buying a mix of the food types which are most cost-effective at returning calories we end up with a daily allowance of calories of 2,926 well above NHS recommendations on diets for men and women. However, we are missing the nutritional variation of minimum vegetables. This would mean death by oats.

Option 2: Chemical Vegan, No Vegetable Constraints

Option 2: Chemical Vegan Prioritising 400g Vegetables

Option 2 prioritises the 400g of vegetables, using the mix of peas, fava beans and a vegetable mix, we end up with 1,833 calories per day, still above what the average UK person should eat if trying to achieve their ideal Body Mass Index of 1,641 calories per day. The daily diet is also relatively well balanced too, with oats only 13% points more than in the Some Meat diet.

Won’t somebody think of the protein?

If we compare protein supplied in the 2 diets the Some Meat option comes out on top but the Chemical Vegan, with 400g of vegetables, still provides more than enough with 36% more than what is required by the average man.

Comparison Conclusion

We could quite easily feed the citizens of this country in the UK a basic food which hits some key nutrient criteria and would help increase equality hugely when using a chemical vegan diet. Meat and dairy are not cost-effective enough and can’t be supplied within this subsidy.

No Doubt It’s Dull

Both the “Some Meat” and chemical vegan diets are a tad dull in terms of flavour. I’m a big chilli and garlic guy.

First, it should be remembered this is a minimum diet. A national minimum wage is a bit low, you can’t buy much variety in life with it, but it’s designed to get you by. This diet in the same vein is designed to stop hunger, maintain nutrition and ensure everyone starts on a level playing field. Someone could buy more if they had the means to.

Secondly, these calculations were simplified for speed. There are a lot of different variations which could be used to add greater variety and still meet the requirements put in place.

If we really wanted, the huge land saving the vegan diet would deliver could be partially used to generate crop exports at a large profit. Plants are more profitable than livestock, is fairly surprising; I thought we lived in a capitalist system? The state could easily fund the cost of production of more crops and then use the profit from exports to import more interesting flavours as well as to invest in creating more sustainably diverse crops in the UK. Also, there’s no real reason why we can’t expand our flavour profile in this country, it would just take time to develop.

In practice not everyone may take up their food allocation, in which case more of the subsidy could be used on a greater variety of food.

Time

This system could not work overnight. It would have to develop over a long time to minimise shock and bring the public on board.

Cost Implications

Price Of Meat

The price of meat would increase as any meat produced wouldn’t be subsidised. People will object to this. However, there are many harmful aspects of meat. It has a huge impact on the environment, it has a negative impact on people’s health, it isn’t as profitable as other food types like crops, it consumes more land and water than crops, and it delivers less calorific and nutritional return compared to other food types as we have seen.

If anything, given the negative externalities meat should not be subsidised; it should be taxed. The price of meat should be much higher than what it is currently. All this change would do is simply price it at an unregulated free market price.

Meat may taste good but that does that mean it should be subsidised when there are other important considerations at play?

Should supermarkets and fast-food chains reap the reduction in cost with no guarantee that the consumer gets it the benefit?

Food Revenues

If people did opt for free food in this simplified system there’d be a reduction in revenue for the supermarkets. How big this would be is difficult to say. There would still be money to be made in food processing, ready meals, drinks and other areas. How much revenue the supermarkets make by food type is something which will be explored in a later article.

Jobs

While there would be increases in certain jobs there would also likely be a reduction in the number of workers required to work with livestock. The cost of this could be minimised by making the change over time. There would be huge job opportunities on the land that would be freed up for other purposes and these could offset the job losses.

These jobs would not be drastically different to what the workers are currently doing. The new jobs wouldn’t require a farmer to become an office worker but might require a livestock farmer to work with rewilding animals rather than owned animals.

Benefits Beyond Hunger

This article focuses on the tragedy of food poverty and a way of fixing it. This, I believe is the key problem which needs to be solved. There are however some hugely positive effects that the adoption of this universal food package would generate.

The Spare Land & Other Benefits

There are many potential uses for the spare land that is generated, which could create new jobs.

Reintroducing the forest, for both the environment benefit but even commercially for sustainable timber. This would benefit the UK economy by capturing carbon, therefore making our climate change ambitions easier, and by generating income and jobs (anyone who loses farming jobs could be prioritised for jobs like these)

Reintroducing wild animals to help the rewilding. The livestock farmers who lose out could potentially be retrained to help here in helping care for the wild populations.

Housing should become cheaper as there would be an abundant supply of land to develop on.

Crop experimentation land would be less scarce so there would be more scope to experiment with what crops we grow in the UK.

Less Amazon Deforestation some of the feed we provide livestock comes from soybeans grown abroad, often in Brazil.

Land rotation constantly using the same area for crops and livestock ruins it and eventually makes it unusable. Having more space would mean we can rotate where we grow our crops more easily.

Bees surely, somehow, this would help the bees.

Textiles the UK could grow plants to supply the growing market for sustainable clothing. Another great money-spinner.

Wind and solar farms again, more land to create space for wind and solar energy.

Animal Welfare there would likely be far fewer animals slaughtered as the quantity demand for animals would go down both because meat wouldn’t be required to satiate hunger and because the price of meat would rise.

Obesity

There is a link between obesity and meat intake. A reduction in obesity spending could provide a much needed boost to the NHS budget. 1 in 4 adults are obese according to the NHS. In 2016/17 there were 617k admissions to hospital because of obesity. The NHS directly spent £6.1bn in 2014/2015 on obesity and overweight related illness. Supposing everyone adopted this diet, incentivised by the fact that it’s free, obesity could potentially be dramatically reduced and, therefore, a huge saving on the NHS meaning a net-benefit in terms of government expenditure.

Complexities

Price of Crops

By not simply giving farmers the subsidy irrelevant of their produce there would be an increase in crop prices farmers initially would not be able to supply as much quantity without the subsidy. However, there would be 2 other effects. Demand would become relatively price elastic. The government, being so large, could insist on a price point range. Secondly, there’d be a large expansion in the supply of crops as farmers pivot to thrive. This could balance out the price increase.

For those with a basic understanding of economics, this can be illustrated in the below supply and demand chart. Prices start at equilibrium P1, where supply curve S1 and demand curve S2 meet, which is where they currently are with the way the subsidy is now paid.

If we take away the subsidy, this would cause a constriction in supply as farmers wouldn’t be able to produce as much as they could at the same prices, meaning supply moves from S1 to S2. This results in an increase in price from P1 to P2 but only if the demand curve remains the same.

In reality, the demand would dramatically increase and it would become more price elastic; by being such a powerful buyer the government would be better equipped at negotiating better prices. This would lead to an expansion in demand for crops from D1 to D2.

If supply remained the same at S2 then price would still increase from its starting point at P1. There would however be a massive expansion in supply to meet the new demand for plants meaning supply would move from S2 to S3. This would lead to a reduction in price from P2 to P3.

Regardless, the effect on price might be minimal given the fact that the majority of subsidies will currently go to livestock farms. They require more land. The subsidy is paid by how much land a farmer owns, which means livestock farms will get more. This suggests that the impact on price would be minimised by the fact that crops get a smaller share of subsidies.

Overproduction

There is a risk that we create too much food and have a supply surplus. This would be mitigated by progressing towards the new system over a long period to minimise waste. There would be no need to rush to produce everything at once.

Some crops e.g. oats can store for 1–2 years. This would mean simply producing less the next year to balance the surplus.

Distribution

Costs of distribution would have to be incorporated in some way or dealt with innovatively to minimise costs. One option is to simply make it compulsory for food retailers, who would still be transporting food to sell anyway, to also take the national food requirement.

Conclusion and next steps

The UK can feed itself at no extra cost to the taxpayer if we provided a plant-based diet. The subsidy alone has more than enough to feed every single person to a basic level of nutrition if the government provided a plant-based food package. There is potential for a varied diet. Supposing people adopted the diet to make up the majority of their food, there could be huge and far-reaching benefits across society. Importantly though, this about making sure people are fed more than those other benefits.

Having read this far, I’d hope you agree that solving hunger through plant-based Universal Food Care is worthwhile and something to be fought for. I plan to develop this campaign initially by further improving and tightening the research, taking on feedback, raising awareness to eventually work on mobilising and organising people to campaign for it. If you agree that it is something that should happen, then please sign up below to be a part of it.

I don’t think people should have to struggle for food and I want to help change that through fair system changes.

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