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Sunday, 29 July 2007

Food Security - the coming agenda

My mother, having survived the second war, was a great food-storer. Our pantry was a room something like 6' x 8' racked with shelves and bins groaning under the weight not just of tins and packets but rows of jars of home-made pickles, jams and preserves. Potatoes came in huge brown sacks, and the hens dutifully laid enough eggs to keep the egg-trays filled. In the autumn the crisp strong scent of stacks of apples (also filling the sheds) always heralded the nearness of Christmas. I suppose we could have lived for several months on the contents of that pantry.

Few homes these days have more than minimal food stocks. The supermarkets give the impression of cornucopia only by continuous shelf-filling; in reality, they carry little reserve stock and a day without deliveries would see many of their shelves bare.

There's no reason to panic, of course, but a number of factors are coming together that will make food security in the UK of greater importance.

We are still reliant on imports for between 40% - 50% of our food; the UK has not been self-sufficient in food production since the eighteenth century. We are therefore reliant on there being food available on the international markets, on a currency strong enough to purchase food, and on a secure system of global transportation by sea.

Food security is inextricably linked to energy security. We are only just starting to realise, now that North Sea oil is finishing, how vulnerable we are to world energy markets. The French, with a self-sufficiency of nuclear power, face fewer challenges.

After decades in which world food production has outstripped population growth and the price of food in the UK has fallen substantially in real terms, the pendulum is starting to swing back. A significant switch of the world's agricultural land from food crops to biofuel crops has already caused a crisis in Mexico over the price of tortilla flour.

And of course the increase we are seeing in extreme climate events across the world. Together with the vulnerability of national flocks to an increased risk of bird flu, and the national herds to foot and mouth and the like.

China's increasing prosperity has meant a massive increase in animal protein consumption; animals need feed, grain - and demand for wheat and maize is keen. Many of you will recall how Reagan used wheat as a weapon to win the Cold War; I doubt that Russia's new form of 'democracy' has improved her agricultural productivity very greatly, but gas-wealth allows her to buy on the international markets.

Those haunting images of mass-starvation in Africa that we saw in the '60s and '70s may not be too far away again. Our own food prices will see some significant increases by Christmas.

I shall be starting to increase my personal food stocks. Lidl and Aldi. Nothing dramatic. But all the signs are pointing to a bit of circumspection.

3 comments:

Nick Drew said...

The French, with a self-sufficiency of nuclear power, face fewer challenges

Challenges come in different shapes, Mr R, and in the longer run France could be bankrupted by the astronomic and looming decommissioning costs.

I have predicted elsewhere* that Sarkozy, a clear-sighted gentleman if ever there was one, plans to invite the EU to pay these costs. CAP, Common Nuc Policy - it's all the same to him - let the neighbours pay.

- - - - - - - -
*http://cityunslicker.blogspot.com/2007/07/this-if-big-one.html

Sabretache said...

That's a pretty shrewd, far-sighted post if I may venture.

My own view is that things on both the energy and food production fronts are quite a bit worse, even than the piture you paint.

I'm no Jeremiah. I've been self-employed for over 30 years and give short-shrift to reliance on the State for anything but the most basic matters of Security, law-enforcement etc. But frankly HMG wilful blindness about both food and energy security is breathtaking. My guess is that, on the former, they haven't quite sussed it yet; and on the latter, they sussed it long ago: hence our 6 decades foreign policy alignment with the US on all matters Middle-Eastern - with the exception of our go-it-alone Suez venture of course - but the implications of an undeniable looming peak in world conventional fuel production is just too scary to be broached head-on. They therefore make do with 'combatting climate change' since, in its prescriptions correlate closely with what is required to mitigate 'Peak Oil' - and we can always blame fuel shortages on those wicked Arabs can't we?

hatfield girl said...

For the first time for decades our smallholding is up and running - olive groves replanted , fields ploughed, woods cleaned and, astonishing in its effectiveness, the fruit and vegetables garden is fully cultivated.

At least 100 euros a week of produce comes to the house, and that is after the man who works the gardens takes what is his. Apart from being delicious and barely recognisable as what comes from the shops, it's generating a mini barter economy - my onions failed but others did better so we swap for my successes in courgettes and string beans.

In return for tomatoes someone is bottling up a supply of conserve for me.

But what about people with no hope of access to land? And no access to (quite considerable) skills either? And no time to wait or culture of eating what there is rather than what is wanted.