Earlier this month we marked the start of Britain’s involvement in the First World War and since then we have seen a lot of media coverage looking at all aspects of the war and its effect on the nation.
The farming industry too has been looking back at the events of 1914 and how we rose to the challenge of producing more food or risk being starved into submission.
At the outbreak of war we were reliant on imports for over 60 per cent of our food – 78 per cent of wheat, 40 per cent of meat and virtually all our sugar was imported – almost half coming from Germany. We were also heavily reliant on imports of fuel, fertilisers and feed from around the world.
Within two years farmers were facing a perfect storm: a German submarine campaign in our shipping lanes, a poor harvest on home soil and growing pressure to increase food production. Add to all this a labour shortage, loss of horses and a lack of machinery and the challenges seemed insurmountable.
Of course we own a huge debt of gratitude to the soldiers who fought for us on the front line but we must not forget the farmers at home who in the face of such adversity managed to increase the amount of farmed land by two million acres by the end of the war to deliver the nation’s largest harvest in 1918.
To achieve this, the face of farming had changed dramatically: new crops were grown that were previously imported, advances in machinery were widely embraced and of course nothing would have been possible without the Women’s Land Army.
To celebrate the achievement of wartime farmers, the NFU has published a new report ‘The Few that Fed the Many’. It documents the significant contribution they made to the war effort and makes fascinating reading, exploring how government policy changed and how the nation responded with different initiatives such as the ‘Plough Up’ campaign and rationing.
What strikes me is how relevant many of the wartime themes still are today.
Food waste was something the government took a dim view of, fining households for wasting any food deemed fit to eat. Today households throw away some seven million tonnes of food and drink every year and more than half of that could still have been eaten.
Wasting this food costs the average household £470 a year, rising to £700 for a family with children, the equivalent of around £60 a month.
Then there is the whole issue of self-sufficiency. For me it was poignant that just three days after the First World War’s 100th anniversary on August 4 we reached the day when Britain would run out of food if we relied only on home-grown produce. In other words we only produce enough food in this country to last 219 days That means we are only 60 per cent self-sufficient today – down two per cent on last year and a whopping 15 per cent on 1975.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Britain was only 40 per cent self-sufficient but we worked incredibly hard to turn that around.
The government of the day was forced to learn some very important lessons very quickly and it’s important we heed these lessons from the past.
Reliance on imports and a lack of respect for the importance of food production is a road we should not travel again.
Rosey Dunn is a farmer based outside York and is the National Farmers’ Union council delegate for York East.