Food is as important as energy

Energy security has made it back into the mainstream media in recent times, but I’m still waiting for reports on an issue that is likely to have much more signifance.

It’s an issue that’s hinted at in the agricultural trade press, skimmed over by most politicians, the mainstream media and many environmental groups, and is left largely to a handful of non-government organisations, like the UK Food Group. Plus, of course, the fringe end-times/transition culture/energy descent believers.

The signs and indicators that mark this issue are in the mainstream: a doubling in wheat prices, rocketing phosphate prices, rising bread and milk prices, soaring food prices in the West, rocketing oil prices feeding through to higher agricultural and transport costs, tortilla protests in Mexico, pasta protests in Italy, the diversion of food crops to energy uses, and the list goes on.

At the very least, the signs are that we’re approaching the end of the era of cheap food, which would have a huge impact on people the world over.

At worst, the world could be on the verge of major shortages of even the most basic foodstuffs. That’s not say that the West will go hungry tomorrow or at all, but the poor in the developing world will suffer while we in the west could well have to reappraise what we regard as necessities and what we regard as luxuries.

It sound extreme, but when you start thinking about food issues holistically instead of piecemeal you start to realise it’s only a matter of time before food security will explode into the mainstream media—and almost certainly to surprise that something this big “came from nowhere”.

It hasn’t.

In fact, some of the signs are creeping up to the attention of the mainstream media but few journalists, let alone politicians or the public, seem capable of seeing the bigger picture.

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Last week, the Times reported the world is just 10 weeks away from running out of wheat after stocks fell to their lowest level for 50 years.

Yesterday, the Scotsman reported what farmers have known for a while, that fertiliser costs are rocketing on the package of steep rises in demand combined with diminishing reserves of high quality mineral deposite.

The three major farming inputs are nitrogen, potash and phosphate.

In conventional, industrial agricultural nitrogen inputs are largely oil based and rise as oil prices rise, potash inputs are under pressure after a major Russian mine was flooded (with little relief likely in less than three years) and phosphate inputs are costing 300 per cent more as demand far outstrips diminishing supplies.

The situation with phosphates is about to get worse with as more and more arable land is converted to maize production to meet the demand for biofuels—and maize needs vast inputs of phosphate to be grown on an industrial scale.

The cost of phosphate also feeds through to wheat prices, as 20 per cent of the world’s phosphate production is used on wheat crops.

Then there’s the labour shortages, also mentioned in the Scotsman article.

Look through the classifieds in any of the UK’s farming newspapers and magazines, and you’ll find scores of ads for farm workers.

In the UK and other developed nations, as well as many developing nations with industrialised agriculture, farm workers are now highly skilled, flexible and adaptable.

They may used bigger, more efficient machinery and there may be fewer workers on a farm than in the past, but that also means there are fewer and fewer people with both the skillset and the attitude available to do the work.

For employers, the downward pressure on prices from supermarkets makes low wages appealing but the flip side is that the labour shortage can make it difficult to meet the demands put on producers.

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But an even bigger threat to food production and reserves is changing consumer habits, particular in India, China and other Asian countries.

As their populations change from agrarian to industrialised, so these countries newly affluent middle classes are demanding the same lifestyles as people in the develop world — and that means a huge increase in demand for meat in particular.

In January 2007, McDonald’s opened its first drive-through in Beijing, bringing its outlets to 780 in 20 cities with 50,000 employees.

The company planned to open a further 100 outlets during 2007, then use a deal with Sinopec, the state-owned Chinese petrol company with 30,000 service stations, to ramp its market penetration up even further.

How much grain-feed beef will be required to meet McDonald’s demand alone?

And how much chicken will be required to meet the burgeoning demand from Yum Brands Inc., which already has 2,000 KFC restaurants and 300 Pizza Huts, and is expanding fast?

PigWorld, the UK pig industry magazine, has reports every month on the soaring demand for pork within China.

China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of pork, but is feeling the pinch because of rising demand and a massive outbreak of “blue ear” disease that has killed millions of pigs.

In fact, demand is so great that the Chinese Government has cut its import tariffs on pork (and chicken) in a bid to keep prices down and supplies high.

Why? Because pork is to the Chinese as oil is to the UK, the US and other Western countries.

The Chinese people are accustomed to pork being the mainstay of their diet and their governments have usually managed to keep the lid on supply and demand. The present government even maintains a pork reserve to cover shortages and manage prices down.

But the Chinese government is now terrified that shortages and rocketing prices will cause civil unrest.

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The problem for the Chinese, and the rest of us, is that the surge in demand for grain to feed livestock has coincided with a decline in production as the US Government encourages US farmers to switch to growing fuel crops.

Land that once would have grown grain for bread and then more recently for livestock is now being used to grow fuel for cars.

To make matters even worse, there’s an increasing likelihood that there will be even more demand as the aircraft industry develops engines that run on biofuels.

Sir Richard Branson may have been boasting recently about his carbon neutral, biofuelled vision of the airline industry’s future, but you have to wonder what his passengers will be eating.

To add to the problem, Europe has been taking land out of agricultural use for years—whether under set-aside schemes or covering vast acreages with bitumen and concrete for housing estates and supermarket complexes.

(Locally to us, we’ve watched in amazed as farms are bought by developers, broken up and turned into vast housing estates. So much for green belt!)

The farmers who have remained have developed their field margins to allow wild life could flourish, hedges and drystone walls have been replaced where once they were ripped out to make fields more efficient, and drainage schemes have been destroyed to recreate water meadows, marshes and ponds.

The results have been markedly beneficial, whether for biodiversity, the tourism industry or for farmers themselves, many of whom have benefited financially from taking land out of production.

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Now, with food prices soaring, industrial farmers will start pressuring governments to rip all of this out and open up the land for industrialised farming again, ignoring the long-term damage that this causes and ignoring the shortages of cheap oil, nitrogen, potash and phosphate upon which industrial farming depends.

The pressure will be intense as Britain is only 60 per cent self sufficient in food and that makes every single one of us extremely vulnerable to volatility and stability in the food supply chains.

Despite that vulnerability, the most recent study I could find on UK food self sufficiency was published in 1975—”Can Britain Feed Itself“, Kenneth Mellanby, Merlin Press, 1975.

When Baroness Byford asked, in the House of Lords on 22 February 2005, “what effect the decline in self-sufficiency of United Kingdom food production is having on the long-term sustainability of United Kingdom agriculture”, the Government reply was enlightening, if shocking.

Lord Whitty, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said “there is no direct relationship between self-sufficiency levels and sustainability”.

He went on to say that British farmers what the market wants, rather than what subsidy dictates or what any artificial target for self-sufficiency might dictate.

In other words, food security is to be left to the market.

With the market in turmoil, supply shortages already upon us, and global demand rocketing, I wonder how long it will be before the Government feels a little less secure?

How long it will be before the public start demanding quick fixes and how the great British unwashed will react when they discover that not only are there no quick fixes, but that food they’ve taken for granted is now becoming both scarce and expensive?

And all this is without taking into account any consideration of global warming, climate change, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, rising transportation costs, and the like.

What should be happening in the UK is the development of strategies:

  • for sustainable production that retain the environmental gains of the past few years,
  • for developing a diversification and expansion of Britain’s food production base (if 10% of the UK’s food—1.3 million tonnes in 1941—came from gardens and allotments in World War 2, it can be done again),
  • for curbing both over-consumption and waste,
  • and for alerting and educating the public to what lies ahead and what they can do to make a difference.

And looking on the bright side, a massive change in the national diet combined with more physical exercise—all that gardening—would also have huge benefits in combating the obesity epidemic and reduce the cost of the NHS.

3 Responses to “Food is as important as energy”

  1. The Observer has a good article today that looks at the ever increasing growth of cities, and the way the world’s human population is changing from being largely agrarian based to city based.

  2. The BBC has published some interesting figures on food prices, eating habits and the growing biofuel industry. In China, for example, meat consumption has risen from 20kg per capita in 1980 to 50kg in 2007.

  3. Well, someone is concerned. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he is deeply concerned about the sharp rise in global food prices.

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