BRITISH consumers could face wartime-like rationing and major shortages of meat and fish in the decades ahead, according to new official assessment of the UK's food security.
Britain is 73 per cent self-sufficient in food production, but this could be challenged by global influences, such as climate change, world population increases, soaring oil prices and animal disease, the report said.
The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn – a vegetarian – has now called for a "radical rethink" of the country's food policy.
Mr Benn said last year's sharp rise in the cost of food and oil and a severe drought in Australia showed the urgent need to develop a food security plan.
Read Annie Anderson's analysis of this story here
"Last year the world had a wake-up call with the sudden oil and food price rises," he said at the launch of a national debate on food security. "We need a radical rethink of how we produce and consume our food."
Mr Benn cautioned against food waste – Britain throws away 6.7 million tonnes of food a year – and revealed he was in talks with supermarkets to scrap "best before" dates on packaging. He added that higher energy prices would lead to lower food stocks, as the costs of storage grew.
As well as eating more homegrown vegetables, the British public could also have to accept genetically modified (GM) crops as part of their staple diet. The UK could contribute to global food security if it produced more cereal grains, the report said. Mr Benn said he wanted British farmers to produce as much as possible, but in a way that addressed climate change.
To achieve this, Britain would have to be turned from a nation of meat eaters to vegetarians.
"Maximising calorie production would require a dramatic reduction in livestock production with all crop production used for human food where possible, instead of animal feed," the report said.
"The UK could produce more than enough food to feed itself with a much-changed diet." This would be "a highly restricted, if sufficiently nutritious, diet".
Depleted fish stocks around the world could also force seafood off British plates – unless there is a big boost to fish farming. The report said: "Despite interventions, natural supplies of fish will not be sufficient to meet rising demand."
People would also have to consume less food overall. Forty years ago, the average number of calories eaten each day was 2,100; it is now 2,800. A new food strategy will be produced by the government before the end of the year, but Mr Benn called for an open debate about GM crops when he unveiled the food security strategy assessment.
"If GM can make a contribution, then we have a choice, as a society and as a world, about whether to make use of that technology, and an increasing number of countries are growing GM products," he said.
Yesterday's assessment was published alongside an update on last year's Food Matters report from the Cabinet Office on rising food prices, the problems of unhealthy eating and the environmental impacts of what we eat.
The Scottish Government unveiled its own food and drinks policy in June. Environment secretary Richard Lochhead said: "Secure and resilient food supplies are at the heart of our new approach, which takes the implications of climate change and an increasing world population into account."
Mr Lochhead said it was "vital" Scotland stayed ahead on food security because of its burgeoning food and drink brands. He said: "Scotland's food and drink producers have a vital role to play. We will ensure they get the support they need and produce guidance to help communities and public bodies develop local 'grow your own' initiatives."
Scottish Conservative spokesman on the environment John Scott said: "At last the government is realising that the UK is sleepwalking into a strategically vulnerable position over food security."
The Conservatives said their analysis showed the UK's self-sufficiency in indigenous food fell from 82 per cent in 1998 to 73 per cent in 2008, and that, between 1997 and 2008, land for vegetable production fell by a quarter.
Liberal Democrat energy and climate change spokesman Simon Hughes said: "While climate change and the end of cheap oil are transforming where and how food is produced, the government has slashed research funding into the future of Britain's food supply."
When coupons were currency
RATIONING was introduced in Britain in January 1940. The Ministry of Food instituted a system that meant each person was registered with local shops and was provided with a ration book containing coupons.
The shopkeeper was provided with enough food for registered customers. When purchasing goods, the purchaser had to give the shopkeeper a coupon as well as money.
Restaurants were exempt from rationing, which caused discontent, as it was seen as giving the rich an opportunity to exceed their rations by eating out regularly.
To prevent this, limits were placed on cost, number of courses served and the dishes allowed in any one sitting. Meals including both fish and meat were banned.
Under rationing, Britons consumed nearly as many calories as before, but less fat, sugar and protein.
Rationing continued after the end of the war. In fact, it became stricter after the war ended than during the hostilities. Bread, which was not rationed during the war, was rationed from 1946 to 1948, and potato rationing began in 1947. This was largely due to the necessity of feeding the population of European areas coming under British control, whose economies had been devastated by the war.
The end of all food rationing did not come until 4 July, 1954, with meat and bacon last to go.