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Britain may need to 'dig for survival' as global food crisis looms

While UK agriculture minister David Heath's appeal calls for Britons to be self-sufficient, experts say that what is a global problem also needs global solutions. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // When Britain's agriculture minister David Heath warned last week that Britain needed to produce more food, he invoked the Second World War.

The motto then was: "Dig for victory." Soon, the minister said, Britons may have to "dig for survival".

The minister's choice words were a stark reminder of the urgency of global food security even in wealthy developed countries. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that global food production needs to expand by 60 per cent to meet demand by 2050, when the world's population is expected to pass 9 billion.

While Mr Heath's appeal called for Britons to be self-sufficient, experts say that what is a global problem also needs global solutions.

"The solution is probably not for everybody to turn inwards and say 'we are going to feed ourselves'," said Rob Bailey, from the energy, environment and resources department at Chatham House, a London think tank. "The solution is to get in place international rules and agreements to deal with dysfunctional global markets and build confidence."

The challenges are formidable. The unpredictability of more varying and extreme weather patterns that make climate change such a threat to food security, and along with it, pests and disease pressure will increase, according to the conclusions published after the Food Security Futures conference in Dublin this month, organised by the FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Experts at the conference said that in addition to increasing actual food production and more investment in adapting agriculture to climate change, there had to be action on a wide front, including in consumer habits.

Mr Bailey suggested legislation to prevent countries from imposing export controls on staples such as wheat, rice, maize and soybeans in times of shortage. Russia and India have so far resisted such ideas, but they are not the only ones who want to assert sovereignty over their food production: during the 2007-2008 food crisis, which particularly affected Asia, Africa, South America and some parts of the Middle East, more than 30 countries imposed some form of export controls, thus exacerbating the dramatic spike in prices.

The drought in North America last year also underscored how vulnerable even the biggest and most advanced food producers are to shifting weather patterns. It also focused minds on a worst-case scenario: simultaneous extreme weather events in the world's largest food producers.

"The real risk is that you have another drought in the US coupled with a drought in Russia or Australia," Mr Bailey said. "That could be very seriously destabilising."

Mr Heath's comments on self-sufficiency came as Britain faced up to the damage wrought by the wetter than usual summer last year, which resulted in a wheat harvest two tonnes below normal, and an unusually long winter this year that could reduce the 2013 harvest by 25 per cent.

Digging for survival, was "not overstating" the issue of food security by a lot, Mr Heath said.

But even complete self-sufficiency in a country such as Britain, with enough money to buy food from abroad, would be counterproductive, Mr Bailey said, leaving consumers to pay more for less-efficient production.

Regional solutions within a global framework also have to be considered. For instance, there is "definitely a case" for building up six months of food stocks in the wealthy but food-poor countries of the Arabian Gulf, Mr Bailey said, to mitigate effects of future price shocks, even if historically food stores have often been mismanaged by governments.