Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nine meals from anarchy

I'm so used to being called a nutjob when I worry aloud about this stuff that it is a shock to find an article like this is a middle of the road mainstream newspaper.

from The Daily Mail:

Nine meals from anarchy - how Britain is facing a very real food crisis 

By Rosie Boycott

The phrase 'nine meals from anarchy' sounds more like the title of a bad Hollywood movie than any genuine threat.

But that was the expression coined by Lord Cameron of Dillington, a farmer who was the first head of the Countryside Agency - the quango set up by Tony Blair in the days when he pretended to care about the countryside - to describe just how perilous Britain's food supply actually is. 

Long before many others, Cameron saw the potential of a real food crisis striking not just the poor of the Third World, but us, here in Britain, in the 21st Century. 

The scenario goes like this. Imagine a sudden shutdown of oil supplies; a sudden collapse in the petrol that streams steadily through the pumps and so into the engines of the lorries which deliver our food around the country, stocking up the supermarket shelves as soon as any item runs out. 

If the trucks stopped moving, we'd start to worry and we'd head out to the shops, cking up our larders. By the end of Day One, if there was still no petrol, the shelves would be looking pretty thin. Imagine, then, Day Two: your fourth, fifth and sixth meal. We'd be in a panic. Day three: still no petrol. 

What then? With hunger pangs kicking in, and no notion of how long it might take for the supermarkets to restock, how long before those who hadn't stocked up began stealing from their neighbours? Or looting what they could get their hands on? 

There might be 11 million gardeners in Britain, but your delicious summer peas won't go far when your kids are hungry and the baked beans have run out. 

It was Lord Cameron's estimation that it would take just nine meals - three full days without food on supermarket shelves - before law and order started to break down, and British streets descended into chaos. 

A far-fetched warning for a First World nation like Britain? Hardly. Because that's exactly what happened in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People looted in order to feed themselves and their families. 

If a similar tragedy was to befall Britain, we are fooling ourselves if we imagine we would not witness similar scenes of crime and disorder. 

Well, today Britain is facing a very real crisis. Granted, it is not the threat of a sudden, terrifying phenomenon such as the hurricane that struck New Orleans. But in its capacity to cause widespread hardship and deprivation nationwide, it is every bit as daunting. 

Oil prices are spiralling - $120 a barrel this week, up 23 per cent since the start of the year - and the cost is being felt not only by drivers but by each and every one of us who has seen our food bills soaring. 

This week, the British Retail Consortium revealed that food price inflation had risen to 6 per cent - the highest figure since comparable records began - and up from 4.7 per cent in April and 4.1 per cent in March. 

At its most basic, the reasons for this food inflation are twofold: increasing demand (particularly in the emerging economies of India and China) and spiralling production costs. 

The former had been predicted for years, but the latter is more unexpected. 

Conventional wisdom had it that in an age of mechanisation, the cost of producing the food that we eat would decrease as technology found new ways of improving yields and minimising labour costs. But there was a problem that hadn't been factored in. Production methods are now such that 95 per cent of all the food we eat in the world today is oil-dependent.

The 'black gold' is embedded in our complex global food systems, in its fertilisers, the mechanisation necessary for its production, its transportation and its packaging. 

For example, to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires the equivalent of six barrels of oil - enough to drive a car from New York to LA. 

Unbelievable? One analysis of the fodder pellets which are fed to the vast majority of beef cows to supplement their grazing found that they were made up of ingredients that had originated in six different countries. Think of the fuel required to transport that lot around the world. 

Now factor in the the diesel used by the farm vehicles, the carbon footprint of chemical fertilisers used by most nonorganic beef farms and the energy required to transport a cow to the abattoir and process it. The total oil requirement soon adds up. 

And so as oil prices have risen, so too has the cost of food - and I'm afraid it's only set to get worse. The age of cheap food is at an end - and it will impact not only on our supermarket bills, but on the whole economy.

Fifty years ago, food represented around 30 per cent of the average household budget, whereas nowadays it is nearer to 9 per cent. 

In other words, cheap food has not only helped keep inflation down, it also allowed the postwar consumer boom to flourish. 

With our most basic and necessary commodity - the food on our plates - costing proportionally less every decade, we had plenty of free capital to spend on luxuries: flat-screen TVs; the holidays abroad; the home improvements and extensions that so many of us have acquired. 

That's all set to change in a major way. A new era of austerity is approaching, and we are illpreparedfor its scale and effect. As a farmer myself, who runs a smallholding in Somerset, I was one of the first to detect the winds of change, as the prices for my animal feed rose. (more)

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