Five years ago on 6 March 2008, Magnus Linklater in The Times wrote on The Coming Food Crisis. Below is what he had to say.
So what progress have we made? In the meantime we have started to lose all the bees we need for pollination.
The early signals are there, but the world seems to be sleepwalking towards disaster
To explain the exact connection between a newly opened hamburger joint in Beijing, Sir Richard Branson's biofuelled planes and the strip of wild flowers running round my farmer friend's field in Cambridgeshire would take more than the 970 words allotted to me here but, believe me, they will be on the front page of this and every other newspaper before long, because they spell the beginnings of a full-blown food crisis.
You can see the early signals already - the doubling of wheat prices, the mounting cost of bread, the steepest increases at the supermarkets for 14 years, demonstrations on the streets by pig farmers threatened with bankruptcy, “tortilla riots” in Mexico, the drying up of aid to the Third World.
And this is only the start of it. In the words of Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the
“We are sleep-walking into a crisis.” At the very least he predicts the end of
the era of cheap food, which will of itself amount to a big shift in our eating
habits. But if the process of rising costs and diminishing supplies of grain
accelerates, as it may well do, we could witness actual shortages of basic foodstuffs.
One report last month said that the world is only ten weeks away from running
out of wheat supplies after stocks fell to their lowest level for 50 years. University of Leeds
The causes are many and various, but at their heart is a change in global consumer habits that has crept up on us almost without our noticing. In
and the Far East, growing wealth has been
accompanied by a taste for Western diets, including, principally, beef, which
is now being imported in increasing quantities.
There was a time when the idea of an American-style hamburger would have turned the stomach of the average Chinese; not any more. McDonald's is rolling out a chain of drive-through fast-food outlets in China's 30,000 petrol stations, and opening restaurants across that vast country to cater for a new appetite for Western meat.
The world market for beef, and the resulting need for cattle feed has coincided with a decline in the production of grain, as the maize farmers of
switch from producing their
standard crops to growing biofuels as an alternative source of energy. America
Worried by the instability of oil and gas-supplying states throughout the world - from
to the Middle East - the US Government has
encouraged farmers to turn their fields over to producing ethanol. Production
of this alternative fuel is predicted to rise by 30 per cent by 2010. As one
farmer put it: “Once I grew food for a bullock, now I grow fuel for a Buick.”
Enter Sir Richard, heralding a new era of carbon-free aviation travel by sending one of his passenger jets across the
North Sea, its tanks brimming with
biofuels. His feat is, of course, widely applauded, with giants of the
global-warming era such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore congratulating him on a
pledge to spend $3 billion on developing his alternative Virgin fuels. So, just
at a time when we should be considering how best to increase our production of
grain, we in
are switching off one main source of it. Britain
Here then, one might imagine, would be an opportunity for
with its long tradition of highly efficient farming, to begin filling the gap.
As Professor Lang, in a lecture this week at Britain City
has turned round its farming industry to become one of the most productive in
the world. Too productive, perhaps. By the 1970s Britain Britain
and Europe, aided by massive subsidies, were
contributing to grain, beef and butter mountains that had become a source of
The Common Agricultural Policy began switching its grant system away from production towards more environmentally friendly schemes. Farmers were encouraged to grow verges round their fields, where wild life could flourish. Hedges, ripped out to increase the size of fields, were carefully replanted. Ponds, small copses, water verges and species-rich grassland were actively encouraged.
It did wonders for biodiversity, and made a great deal of money for some. My East Anglian farmer friend reported happily on the marked improvement the new grants had made to his bottom line.
He is less happy now. With wheat at £180 a ton, he would dearly like to rip out the thickets and meadows where birds and bees so happily congregate, and go back to doing what he is best at - producing grain. But he is locked into a ten-year scheme and, for the time being at any rate, he is unable to make the switch.
Elsewhere, there are some signs of flexibility: in
a new scheme is being introduced, aimed at encouraging farmers to co-operate,
and become more competitive and more market-orientated. But overall there is
little sign that policy-makers have grasped the enormity of what has happened.
is now barely 60 per cent self-sufficient in food. UK
It is clear that the Government has yet to react to the dimensions of the looming world food crisis. It needs to begin a debate with the EU on the whole direction of
Europe's agricultural strategy and rethink it from
scratch, devising a strategy for sustainable production, then begin to educate
the public about the realities ahead. It will mean a change in culture that is
a million miles from the Tesco-driven consumerism we have grown lazily used to
over the past 20 years.
Professor Lang suggests we may need to go back to the ground-breaking reports of the 1940s, which led to a wholesale shift in
approach to food production. If that means a revolutionary change in the
national diet, then so be it. Maybe that would be no bad thing. Britain
Recently, food prices have been increasing rather more than inflation.