Can we predict the future? No.
Predictions of societal change are always fraught with danger, particularly when it comes to economics, agriculture and the modes of production. It’s almost impossible to accurately gauge the impact of technological innovation or scientific advances; after all, who in 1750 could have predicted that within 100 years, there’d be miles of new railways criss-crossing the country? Thomas Malthus’s famous observation, that famine and limits in food production would naturally inhibit population growth was proven wrong when technological changes led to increased output. Population growth proved to be linear, while food output was exponential.
The Macro-Economic Factors
Nevertheless, it is possible to make some assumptions. What we in the UK will be eating in 100 years will depend on our capacity for production and the strength of our export industries (this determines how much we can afford to import from other economies).
Current Food and Its Origins
Contrary to the popular media myth, the UK currently produces around 54% of its own food (according to Defra
). A further 27% comes from within the EU and the rest is sourced from a diverse range of “stable” countries – places where the supply chain is unlikely to be undermined. It is likely that the UK will continue this diet, as even if Britain exits the European Union, it is highly likely that the EU will continue to export food to the UK.
A potential challenge for the future, however, is that the UK only grows 23% of its fruit and vegetables
. This figure is extremely low when compared with the figure for dairy and egg products (86%) and meat products (84%) and has been in decline since 1990. This is significant because Britain currently has a balance of payments deficit (we import more than we import) for all foodstuffs apart from beverages (saved only by large exports of Scotch whisky). This means that if the UK does leave the EU, it will struggle to maintain current levels of imports, because exports will probably decline due to the tariffs that will be imposed by the EU on a non-EU state.
The Same, But Less
Therefore, the diet of UK citizens will largely remain consistent, but will change in terms of the quantity because it will cost more. 36% cite price as the most important influence on their food purchases, with a total of 90% putting price in their top 5. Furthermore, as inequality continues to rise, the average UK citizen will have less disposable income and will therefore consume less.
Partly, lower consumption will be the result of the early detection of diseases like diabetes, where an early diagnosis gives the sufferer time to adjust their purchasing habits. It will also be a natural consequence of Government action to tackle obesity (and other eating-related conditions) as NHS spending is squeezed as the health services seek to prevent illness before it manifests.
Conversely, the agreement of international deals such as TTIP will reduce the ability of Governments to regulate industrial activity. This could serve as a green light to researchers currently developing genetically enhanced food, and this could reverse any downward trend in consumption as higher yields of crops, which are more resistant to disease and pests, allows Britain to increase its own capacity for producing foodstuffs.