A SHORTAGE of food seems like the last thing 21st century Britain should be worrying about.

The country is facing an obesity crisis, with cheap ready meals and takeaways taking the bulk of the blame.

And yet, a Royal Society report, co-authored by an Essex University professor, warns the easy availability of produce may be lulling us into a false sense of security.

Environmentalist Jules Pretty says post-war rationing did not end until 1954, and is a vivid memory for his parents’ generation.

World food production has increased massively in the intervening years, thanks to scientific work to develop disease-resistant crops and factory farming techniques, which have put agriculture on an industrial footing.

Farmers are growing 4.38 billion tonnes of cereals, compared with 1.84 billion in 1961, comfortably outpacing population growth from three billion to 6.7 billion over the same period.

However, Mr Pretty says the statistics mask the true picture – and Essex is part of the equation.

One billion people will go hungry today as, although there is, in theory, enough food to go round, families in poor countries cannot afford to buy it, and their governments lack the cash to bring local farming methods up-to-date.

While it is a potential global crisis, decision-makers at local level in Essex will need to respond in the near future.

At the moment, the county’s fields are producing nowhere near as much as they could.

Recent projects to create huge new woodlands in the Colchester and Tendring areas will play a role in combating climate change, but are also a symbol of the low value attached to land, which could yield the crops needed in other parts of the world.

He says, by increasing production, we can play a part in solving the worldwide dilemma.

According to the report, that should not mean more of the ruthless approach to farming where forests and hedgerows are destroyed to make room for more crops, as trees and natural habitats are vital for the health of the planet.

Mr Pretty said: “We might need to think about taking more land into agriculture. We have let farmland be built upon and ironically it often tends to be the best bits of farmland that are taken.”

Production must be upped using land already available, which is where the report says genetically-modified foods come in.

So-called “Frankenstein” food is always a controversial subject, not least in north Essex, where “the Wivenhoe 11” were cleared on a point of law after attempting to destroy genetically-modified crops in 2001.

The report calls for the UK to lead a huge £2 billion research programme to find ways of increasing yields, through means including GM.

Mr Pretty said the wider availability of Western films, television programmes and commercials had led to people living in developing countries to aspire to be like the people they see on screen.

He added: “If everybody lived like we do in the West, you would need about six planets to resource it. Put together with climate change and population growth, it adds up to a pretty urgent problem.”

With the world’s population expected to leap to nine billion, by 2050, more and more farmland will be given over to housing.

Professor Sir David Baulcombe, who chaired the Royal Society's study, said: “We need to take action now to stave off food shortages. If we wait even five to ten years, it may be too late.”