Can the UK Feed Itself At No Extra Cost?

Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash
A Maltby Street scene: Freddie the pug considers buying the £16 small plate or the oysters from Essex

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How Could Britain Feed Itself At No Extra Cost?

There are 2 main questions to consider with this approach:

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.

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.

From Can Britain Feed Itself by Simon Fairlie in Land Magazine
From Can Britain Feed Itself by Simon Fairlie in Land Magazine

Chemical Vegan vs. Some Meat On The Land

Data from From Can Britain Feed Itself by Simon Fairlie in Land Magazine visualisation from Author. Cereals for animals are nearly the same as cereals for humans.

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?

Farm Gate Prices taken from UK Government datasets at Defra, calories from My Fitness Pal/Fairlie’s ‘Can Britain Feed Itself’, “meat” is the total of beef, lamb and poultry, “vegetables” are non-legume vegetables (mix of onions and parsnips).

The Some Meat Diet

Cost Calculation Example

Basic cost calculation:price per kg of meat = £2.01
(70 grams per day)*(365 days per year)*(66,800,000 people)
= 1,706,740,000 grams for UK population for one year
= 1,706,740 kilos
* £2.01 (price per kg)
= £3,428,306,483
The subsidy would only cover 36% of the cash required for the Some Meat diet
Milk and meat are prohibitively expensive to sustain. Much more spending is required to buy the same number of calories compared to oats.

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.

Calculating Calories per £ of a food
Oats price per KG = £0.13
Calories per g = 3.9, calories per KG = 3,900
Calories per £ = Calories per KG / Price Per KG
= 3,900/£0.13
= 30,000 calories per £
Optimising how much gets spent on each food type simply looks at Calories per £ as a share of total calories per £ (shown in 3rd column in next table)

Option 2: Chemical Vegan, No Vegetable Constraints

Option 2: Chemical Vegan Prioritising 400g Vegetables

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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