Turning the map: A perspective on UK food security

One way of seeing the UK in a different perspective is to turn the map anti-clockwise, as in the image above. (1) (2)

It takes a while to get your head around a map set out on a west-east axis, instead of the one we’re used to, where ‘up’ is north.

Because this perspective can be oddly disconcerting, I’m going to show it to you in two stages:

Map 1: The UK is strategically part of Europe

Our nearest neighbours are France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Map 1 highlights the following about the UK food supply system:

  • Two of our three immediate neighbours, France and the Netherlands, are major agriculture producers.
  • Most of France plus Spain, Portugal and Italy are at a lower latitude, so have longer and warmer summers, suitable for growing nutrient-dense fresh produce. (3)
    • Fresh produce is important to our food security, especially during the ‘hungry months’ from November to the end of April when little can be harvested here. (4)
    • Before 1st January 2021 when this Brexit took effect, most of our supplies came from the warmer climes of France, Spain and Italy.
    • Farmers in southern Europe can grow produce that our climate and terrain can’t support, such as lemons, oranges, olives and grapes. (6)
    • Even without the strictures of this Brexit, the UK can and should increase investment in UK horticulture technologies, and the green energy technologies needed to support them.
      • Currently, private investment isn’t available because of high economic barriers to entry and low profit margins.
      • It therefore urgently needs Government investment and/or subsidies.
  • The value of livestock farming in the wetter, cooler climate of Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the north of England to our agricultural system.
    • Livestock and dairy production will need to adjust to being carbon neutral at the least, or be phased out.
    • Production is likely to fall, with significant socio-economic impact on rural grassland communities which needs to be resolved.
    • Households will always need access to sufficient, affordable if alternative sources of protein.
  • The mileage chart reminds us that UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States of America is, literally, thousands of miles away. (7) (8)

Notice, too, that Iceland is about the same distance from the middle of the UK as is Gibraltar, the rock off the southern most tip of Spain. A reminder, should you need it, of how important the Gulf Stream is to western Europe, and the UK in particular as our western flank is exposed to whatever the Atlantic Ocean throws eastwards.

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Map 2: The UK in the context of all of Europe
This map is not only bigger than Map 1, it’s also more complicated as I’ve named all the countries. (9)

The key provides info on what trading relationships, if any, they have with each other. (10)

With regard to UK food security, what does this Map 2 tell us?
In addition to the points made about Map 1, note:

  • Every country on this map, other than Russia, Belarus and the UK (10) is part of a trading bloc or an EU candidate or aspiring to be one. (11)
    • We are in a lonely place when it comes to ensuring our food supplies.
    • As well as the fresh produce issue, we import 30-40% of the food we eat.

As stated above, this Brexit threatens UK food security.

  • The vastness of the mainland ‘breadbasket’: the flat fertile plains which run from northern France, the Benelux countries, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
    • And the comparatively tiny UK bread-basket of East Anglia due west of the Benelux countries.
  • Many wars have been fought over possession of, or access to these flat, fertile plains.

Seen from this angle, it isn’t surprising that Russia feels threatened by the EU and NATO. (12) Nor was it surprising that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gravely affected global food security.

About the impact of that invasion on global food security, read this post written on 10th March 2022: Climate change. Population pressures. This Brexit, Covid. And now the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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In summary, the UK is in a lonely place when it comes to ensuring its food supplies in a hungry world. Yet help and support isn’t many miles away.

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(1)  The last blogpost, Latitude: A perspective on UK food security, had a map with the line of latitude going through Birmingham. In this map (see below), the hands of the clock go through Newcastle-upon-Tyne because, at 55 degrees, it’s half-way between the most southerly point of the UK and its northernmost tip. Among other observations you might see, this perspective graphically shows that half the UK is north of the Scottish border.

(2) I’m indebted to Tim Marshall for the idea of ‘turning the map’ in regard to the UK’s strategic relationship with Europe; see Chapter 4 in his brilliant book The Power of Geography: Ten maps that reveal the future of our world. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

(3) Gibraltar is 36 degrees north, and Lampedusa in Sicily (Italy’s southern most point) is at 35 degrees north — only five degrees above Cairo in Egypt.

(4) This table shows what UK farmers can harvest between November and April, because of our terrain and climate:

(5) In terms of UK food security, this Brexit was a major strategic error. Compounding this error was the tactical mistake of rejecting the EU27 offer, made at the second meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee on 12th June 2020, to extend the transition period beyond 1st January 2021 because of Covid.

(6) Global heating is changing what can be grown where. For example, warmer climes have led to an increase in the number of vineyards here; University of East Anglia research found UK vineyards have increased from 761 hectares in 2004 to 3,800 hectares in 2021. But this pales into insignificance compared to the 3.2 million hectares of vineyards in the EU.

(7) Ardnamurchan Point is the most westerly point of the UK mainland, and is on the same line of latitude as the Isle of Labrador in Newfoundland.

(8) For familiarity’s sake, I’ve used miles in this table. Sea crossings (and air flight journeys) are, however, usually measured in nautical miles (1.1508 miles). One nautical mile is equivalent to one degree of latitude, so useful to navigators. (There’s no such measurement as a ‘nautical kilometre.)

(9) Europe has been inhabited for a long time, and many wars about access to its resources. Borders keep changing, and new states are made. This is where the states lie in March 2023; see also footnote (10).

(10) For a full list of EU27, EEU and EFTA countries, see this Dutch Government webpage. Both Georgia and the partially-recognised state of Kosovo want to be EU candidates but, to date, they have not met the conditions for membership.

(11) footnote written on 2nd April: Since I wrote this blogpost in mid-March, the UK became one of the members of the Comprehensive & Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnerships (CPTPP) The clue to its marginal impact on UK trade (forecast to be 0.08% over 15 years) is in the title of the bloc. Former trade negotiator, David Henig summarised it as a shallow trade deal compared to the barriers suffered to real trade with our neighbours, which are denied. Modern trade isn’t about tariffs.
  The UK already signed trade deals with two CPTPP members, Australia and New Zealand. In this NFU article, Minette Batters is critical of the former, and in this one about the New Zealand deal; both being a threat to domestic food producers.

(12) The first chapter of Tim Marshall’s 2015 book, Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics, is about Russia.

 

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