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Who knows there's a food crisis?
The early signals are there, but the world
seems to be sleepwalking towards disaster
Editor: Scottish Edition, The Times
Filed 07 Mar 08
This article was originally published in The Times, 6th March 2008. It is reproduced
here by kind permission of its author and of the newspaper
To explain the exact connection between a newly opened hamburger joint in Beijing, Sir Richard Branson's biofuelled planes and the strip of wild flowers running round my farmer friend's field in Cambridgeshire would take more than the 970 words allotted to me here but, believe me, they will be on the front page of this and every other newspaper before long, because they spell the beginnings of a full-blown food crisis.
You can see the early signals already - the doubling of wheat prices, the mounting cost of bread, the steepest increases at the supermarkets for 14 years, demonstrations on the streets by pig farmers threatened with bankruptcy, “tortilla riots” in Mexico, the drying up of aid to the Third World.
And this is only the start of it. In the words of Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the University of Leeds: “We are sleep-walking into a crisis.” At the very least he predicts the end of the era of cheap food, which will of itself amount to a big shift in our eating habits. But if the process of rising costs and diminishing supplies of grain accelerates, as it may well do, we could witness actual shortages of basic foostuffs. One report last month said that the world is only ten weeks away from running out of wheat supplies after stocks fell to their lowest level for 50 years.
The causes are many and various, but at their heart is a change in global consumer habits that has crept up on us almost without our noticing. In China and the Far East, growing wealth has been accompanied by a taste for Western diets, including, principally, beef, which is now being imported in increasing quantities. There was a time when the idea of an American-style hamburger would have turned the stomach of the average Chinese; not any more. McDonald's is rolling out a chain of drive-through fast-food outlets in China's 30,000 petrol stations, and opening restaurants across that vast country to cater for a new appetite for Western meat.
The world market for beef, and the resulting need for cattle feed has coincided with a decline in the production of grain, as the maize farmers of America switch from producing their standard crops to growing biofuels as an alternative source of energy. Worried by the instability of oil and gas-supplying states throughout the world - from Russia to the Middle East - the US Government has encouraged farmers to turn their fields over to producing ethanol. Production of this alternative fuel is predicted to rise by 30 per cent by 2010. As one farmer put it: “Once I grew food for a bullock, now I grow fuel for a Buick.”
Enter Sir Richard, heralding a new era of carbon-free aviation travel by sending one of his passenger jets across the North Sea, its tanks brimming with biofuels. His feat is, of course, widely applauded, with giants of the global-warming era such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore congratulating him on a pledge to spend $3 billion on developing his alternative Virgin fuels. So, just at a time when we should be considering how best to increase our production of grain, we in Britain are switching off one main source of it.
Here then, one might imagine, would be an opportunity for Britain, with its long tradition of highly efficient farming, to begin filling the gap. As Professor Lang, in a lecture this week at City University, London, pointed out, Britain has turned round its farming industry to become one of the most productive in the world. Too productive, perhaps. By the 1970s Britain and Europe, aided by massive subsidies, were contributing to grain, beef and butter mountains that had become a source of international scandal.
The Common Agricultural Policy began switching its grant system away from production towards more environmentally friendly schemes. Farmers were encouraged to grow verges round their fields, where wild life could flourish. Hedges, ripped out to increase the size of fields, were carefully replanted. Ponds, small copses, water verges and species-rich grassland were actively encouraged. It did wonders for biodiversity, and made a great deal of money for some. My East Anglian farmer friend reported happily on the marked improvement the new grants had made to his bottom line.
He is less happy now. With wheat at £180 a ton, he would dearly like to rip out the thickets and meadows where birds and bees so happily congregate, and go back to doing what he is best at - producing grain. But he is locked into a ten-year scheme and, for the time being at any rate, he is unable to make the switch. Elsewhere, there are some signs of flexibility: in Scotland a new scheme is being introduced, aimed at encouraging farmers to co-operate, and become more competitive and more market-orientated. But overall there is little sign that policy-makers have grasped the enormity of what has happened. The UK is now barely 60 per cent self-sufficient in food.
It is clear that the Government has yet to react to the dimensions of the looming world food crisis. It needs to begin a debate with the EU on the whole direction of Europe's agricultural strategy and rethink it from scratch, devising a strategy for sustainable production, then begin to educate the public about the realities ahead. It will mean a change in culture that is a million miles from the Tesco-driven consumerism we have grown lazily used to over the past 20 years.
Professor Lang suggests we may need to go back to the ground-breaking reports of the 1940s, which led to a wholesale shift in Britain's approach to food production. If that means a revolutionary change in the national diet, then so be it. Maybe that would be no bad thing.