04 January 2010

How Secure is Our Food Supply?

UK focus, but relevant to most of us at the end of long, tenuous supply chains that criss cross the planet...

Excerpt from The Telegraph, 10 August 2009

'Food security. It sounds like an unholy mixture of The Archers and MI6, but perhaps I shouldn't scoff...

The global population is exploding and climate variation is affecting traditional harvests around the world. What's at stake, then, is the fundamental issue of whether we can continue to feed ourselves. The United Nations says that we need to increase world food production by 70 per cent by 2050, when the global population will have risen from six to nine billion.

When the price of rice rocketed 18 months ago, bringing the Philippine government to its knees, plenty of us noticed but most, I'd wager, were little more than piqued that basmati was in short supply at the local supermarket. For, as a nation, we appear to have been wallowing in a disgusting food surplus for decades.

Food prices, though rising, are still lower than at any time in history as a proportion of our total incomes, and we chuck out about a third of all the food we buy. For two generations we European countries have happily sat astride our food mountains, preferring to dump viable food rather than send the surplus to distant parts of the world where harvest failures created famine for expanding populations.

Following the disasters of BSE and foot and mouth, and in the face of divergent opinion on nutrition and health, food is already the nexus of anxiety. Should we eschew GM (which promised to feed the world)? And what about pesticides (despite the increases in crop yield they facilitate)? Is organic the answer (even if, as has been recently suggested, it contains no extra nutritional benefit)?

What should we do about food miles and the carbon footprint of the food we consume? Which fish can we, sustainably, catch and consume? And are we prepared to eat only local, seasonal produce and pay vastly more for lemons, coffee or rice?

Until now, most of these questions had about them a ring of The Good Life – a range of lifestyle choices that the middle classes could dip into at will – though we have not been slow in the past decade to change plenty of our habits for the better: witness the success of farmers' markets, the demand for allotments, which is higher than ever, and the increase in sales of compost bins. There are even early indications that, now we are aware of the scale of the problem, we are beginning to make efforts to minimise our domestic food waste.

Defra's UK Food Security Assessment makes all of the questions about our relationship with food more urgent. In setting out candidly to assess the challenges and risks, it crams into a single basket every hazard possible, from animal disease to salmonella, the amount of water available to grow fruitful crops to the knotty issue of pesticides. Hard on the heels of widespread confusion about how to manage the threat of swine flu, here's a jargon-filled document that nevertheless highlights a troubling issue about which we are complacent at our peril.

No one is suggesting that we stock up the garage with tinned and dried goods just yet. The report's summary includes an assessment of our current and future positions on a number of issues with a hierarchical "traffic light" system. Global fish stocks are already flashing red ("very unfavourable") and water productivity (in essence, the need to get more "crop for your drop") is heading in the same direction...

In maintaining supplies, there are clearly times when being an island has its drawbacks, yet we have flourishing, diverse and stable trade relations. We are not about to dig up the flower beds in front of Buckingham Palace in favour of potatoes just yet.

There is time for a relatively radical transformation in our approach to how we produce and honour the food we so nonchalantly load into our trolleys. The issue is one of maintaining and enhancing global supply – and the reality is that we will have to join most of the rest of the world in spending more on what we eat.

This report highlights the gravity of a bundle of related issues. The Government can claim legitimately that it is covering all the bases, but a little leadership would be useful, too, in helping us to decide which of these risks demand action now. Prepare to debate, lobby and engage rather than stockpile and hope.'

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