Rosalind Skillen: it’s time to turn back the clock and find a way out of the hunger crisis

Last week, I visited community plots created during World War II to address food insecurity. They served the people at a time when supply chains were weakened by war. They continue to serve the community today.

Global food shortages and food insecurity have once again brought to our attention the importance of growing food locally. It is interesting to look back at the past and see what lessons the government can learn.

In 1939, the war showed how Britain had become dependent on food imports and the nation struggled to feed itself. He grew enough food to feed only one person in three. So the Ministry of Food began to encourage people to “grow their own.”

In an effort to support this, the Department of Agriculture launched the “Dig for Victory” campaign a month after the start of the war. This encouraged people to turn their gardens into allotments, and by 1943 over a million tons of vegetables were being grown.

Michael Foote wrote in 1939: “Britain must learn to dig … We must not only dig in the cities, every free half-acre from Shetland to Sillis must feel the blow of a shovel.”

Despite the support this military campaign received, government support for growing food has clearly waned. However, Michael Foot’s message seems as relevant now as it was in 1939.

Conflicts and wars have once again reminded us of how quickly food supplies can be depleted. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven food prices skyrocketing, exposing the fragility of global food systems. It doesn’t help that both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of agricultural products, together supplying 30% of the world’s wheat.

Of course, the political landscape looks different now than it did almost 100 years ago, and it’s worth noting that food prices have been on the rise since 2020.

The climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis and Brexit have all played a role in the surge in food prices.

However, a quick comparison of statistics shows us that Britain is still heavily dependent on food imports. In fact, we have only become more dependent. In 1939, 70% of British food was imported. Today the UK imports 80% of food. We – then, as now – import most of our food from abroad, including products such as carrots and potatoes that can be grown in our native land.

The success of the Dig to Win campaign shows us how we have dealt with this problem in the past by providing examples and testimonies of government-supported initiatives to encourage food growing.

For example, in 1939 every free piece of land was turned into allotments or kitchen gardens. This not only added food to people’s plates, but also saved them money and improved their physical well-being. Today, the government can very easily identify areas of unused land or abandoned sites and turn them into productive growing areas.

Given the carbon cost of food imports, it is important to reduce the distance from the site to the plate, but one of the reasons we should be growing more food on British soil is that it saves people money. UK food prices are at their highest level in 13 years and the average UK grocery shopper’s annual bill is expected to increase by £380. Politicians cannot ignore the cost-of-living crisis and people are noticing food prices go up every time they visit the supermarket. Increasing community holdings is helping to feed communities across the UK in climate resilient and sustainable ways. However, while community groups have taken the lead in addressing the issue, their efforts have not been supported by the government.

Despite Liz Truss’s level of enthusiasm for British cheese and apples in her viral 2014 speech, we’ve seen minimal action on climate change and government support for community groups and farmers.

The UK Climate Change Committee’s annual report notes the government’s lack of response to agriculture and land use issues. The UK’s National Food Strategy has also been criticized for its lack of action to reduce the cost of food and the climate emergency.

The success and achievements of the community plots have been remarkable, but the long-term feasibility of these food growing projects requires funding and resources to sustain them. The government needs to take action to support farmers and communities, rather than relying on the time, effort and energy of individuals, many of whom participate in these types of projects on a voluntary basis.

There is growing dependence on food banks and household food poverty. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis and now a hunger crisis as millions of people in the UK struggle to get the food they need to survive.

Local and seasonal food production will increase people’s access to food and could be one of the most effective solutions to many of the crises we face. Looks like Britain needs to learn how to dig again.