Time to think again about food

Fascinating and slightly terrifying article in The Guardian today about global food shortages brought on by a surge in commodity prices:

Record world prices for most staple foods have led to 18% food price inflation in China, 13% in Indonesia and Pakistan, and 10% or more in Latin America, Russia and India. Wheat has doubled in price, maize is nearly 50% higher than a year ago and rice is 20% more expensive, says the UN…Global food reserves are at their lowest in 25 years and that prices will remain high for years.

Two major themes seem to be emerging out of this. Firstly, the importance of tackling the renewable energy challenge through multilateral agreements. It is not the case that all action taken to reduce fossil fuel consumption is a public good. In a world of global markets, solutions must be coordinated. Unilateral approaches can have deleterious international consequences:

Last year … US farmers distorted the world market for cereals by growing 14m tonnes, or 20% of the whole maize crop, for ethanol for vehicles. This took millions of hectares of land out of food production and nearly doubled the price of maize … Maize is a staple food in many countries which import from the US, including Japan, Egypt, and Mexico. US exports are 70% of the world total, and are used widely for animal feed. The shortages have disrupted livestock and poultry industries worldwide.

Secondly, that food security is a serious issue once more. Most debate in Europe has focused on the iniequities of the CAP, with the implication that European farming is a bloated and outmoded industry that retards development in the world’s poorest countries. Justice requires that it be dramatically scaled down. It is questionable whether this argument was ever true – structural problems heavily limit the ability of the poorest LDCs to compete in international markets; agricultural liberalisation would benefit Brazil, Australia and the USA far more – but it is an argument that now feels increasingly myopic.

The detail of the CAP aside, farming is THE fundamental strategic industry. Nothing matters more to a polity than its ability to feed itself. The assualt on farming in Britain has meant that, where the UK was 87% self-sufficient in products that can be grown here in 1995, it is now 60%. Farms can’t be switched on and off overnight; this is a productive capacity that it would take us years to recover if we needed it again. Britain has voluntarily left itself vulnerable to the vagaries of international markets. Potential consequences are already visible in dairy farming. A sector on its knees from supermarket pressure has suddenly found itself unable to meet a new surge in global demand. Nobody factored in a billion new consumers in China wanting milk as they watched the herds disband. And now we have a global shortage. As Melanie Reed puts it:

If a Martian had landed, we might struggle to explain why we let this situation develop. Why did no one see this coming? We spend billions keeping Trident as a domestic insurance policy against global war, but we do nothing to protect a primary food source against the risk of global shortage. When that shortage comes, we will be defenceless.

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