The Ecologist

 

Grow your own

Tim Lang

1st April, 2008

The World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report makes a grim prediction of what is to come:

‘The future is increasingly uncertain. Models predict that food prices in global markets may reverse their long-term downward trend, creating rising uncertainties about global food security.’

When the architects of globalisation start making such statements, first we should pity those low-income countries dependent on world markets, and second, we can understand why in Whitehall, Brussels and capitals everywhere, food security is also back on the agenda of rich and poor countries alike.

The situation here is fairly sobering. While a 2006 study for Defra by Cranfield University suggested that the UK food system was pretty robust and would prove resilient if there were a crisis or shock of some kind, the hard facts are that the UK is only 63 per cent self-sufficient. This rises to 74 per cent for indigenous (homegrown) foods. Nevertheless, the UK currently imports approximately £22 billion of food and drink each year. Most of this – 68 per cent – comes from elsewhere in the EU.

It’s important not to be blinkered about self-reliance: even at the end of World War II the UK produced the same amount of food as it does currently. It’s a long time since Britain was truly self-sufficient – the late 18th century in fact – but the situation today is rapidly worsening. In 1995, 27 per cent of UK food was imported. By 2006 it was 37 per cent.

Rising concern

For decades, the term ‘food security’ was applied only to developing nations. The problem, as the policy makers saw it, was a simple one: ‘they’ couldn’t feed themselves; the solution was therefore to increase ‘their’ output. What followed was a simple solution – the green revolution – a combination of new plant-breeding and fertilisers. The output from many farms did increase, but farmers were punished for their pains with environmental damage, job losses and a long period of low raw food commodity prices.

Today, the green revolution seems to have run its course. Food prices are rising to such a level that what was once a developing-world problem is now firmly on the radar of the rich. Policy-makers look in vain for another quick fix. They point out that total food production has risen as population has increased, but then acknowledge that food production per capita has fallen to current lows. Thus a new generation of hi-tech agriculturalists are now arguing that only through genetic modification can we hope to feed the world.

There is a dizzying convergence of factors – some economic, some institutional, some social, some environmental – all pointing towards a new period of global food insecurity and renewed worries about the sustainability and fragility of our current food system.

Market speculation is one such factor. In an uncertain world, basic human needs surface as a good investment bet. After decades of chasing easy money – the dot.com boom, property, consumer goods – food now looks like Cinderella, a sector dismissed as a frump not worthy partying for, who turns out to be the belle of the ball. Many commodity traders privately admit that speculation is playing a part in the rises. But only a part.

Other factors are purely economic. Rising affluence in India and China has led to a rise in dietary expectations. As consumers get richer, ‘feast day’ food is eaten more often. Meat consumption is rising, yet animals are inefficient energy converters, require a lot of water and feed, and add to global methane emissions. Combined with attempts by the USA and European Union to alleviate oil dependency by promoting and subsidising biofuels, the price of grain – now used to feed cars as well as humans and livestock – has spiralled.

Increasing population is a further factor. Already at 6.6 billion in 2007, global population is expected to rise to 9.1 billion by 2050. Urbanisation appears unstoppable. In 1961, one billion lived in towns; it was two billion by 1986 and three billion by 2003; it is projected to be four billion by 2018 and five billion by 2030. More people claiming food from limited land means greater scarcity and higher prices. Optimists say new land (or old land in Eastern Europe) will be planted. But displacing what? And with what longerterm repercussions?

Land use also has an influence. In the early 1990s, David and Marcia Pimentel calculated that use of US arable land was at near capacity and that no more was available to cater to a growing population. Land is sometimes mistakenly described as a finite resource. In fact, available land fluctuates, not least with sea levels. The important point for food security is not how much land there is in total, but how much productive land is available. Optimists suggest that the world could bring into use about 12 per cent more and than is currently under cultivation. This might well be so, but marginal lands tend to be less productive and more expensive to use. Moreover, climate change is highly likely to restructure which lands will yield at all. Remember that what we now call the Sahara was probably once the Old Testament Garden of Eden.

Here in the UK, calculations of productive arable land are sorely needed. The Stockholm Environment Institute at York recently calculated that the UK’s current food and farming ecological footprint – its land, energy and sea-space use – is up to six times the food-growing area of the UK itself. In northwest England, for example, total household consumption equated to 6.2 global hectares (gha) per resident, of which food consumption, estimated at 1.4 gha/per capita, was the biggest component. In that region, the 20 million tonnes of raw materials produced from the land eventually became just 4.2 million tonnes of food consumed. Half a million tonnes of packaging was used and almost one million tonnes of food and drink were never eaten and sent directly to landfill. The UK throws away 6.7 million tonnes of food annually, a third of food bought. This is equivalent to 15 million tonnes of CO2. So much for modern efficiency.

Without water, agriculture grinds to a halt. In developed countries with clean tap water widely available, it’s easy to forget the long struggles that went on in the 19th and 20th centuries to bring clean water to the urban masses. But in vast areas of the world, sources of water are either unreliable or under threat, and the fight to get decent water in the first place looks as though it might – like food – quietly start to fail, despite the pleas of the World Health Organization and FAO. As environmental science writer Fred Pearce has shown, the world’s virtual water trade (the amount of water that is embedded in food or other products needed for its production) is equivalent to 1,000 cubic kilometres, or 20 Nile rivers of water each year, most of it in agricultural crops.

To put it in perspective, consider that, of all the freshwater in the world, 10 per cent is for household use, 20 per cent for industry and 70 per cent for agriculture. In the UK, agriculture accounts for 742 million cubic metres of water consumption compared to the food and drink industry’s 155 million cubic metres.

Globally, the UN expects water stress (having less than 1,700 cubic metres of water per person per year) to spread dramatically. Although today 92 per cent of humanity has a relatively sufficient supply of water, by 2025 this is anticipated to drop to just 62 per cent. Embedded water is likely to be as or more important a measure of sustainability as food miles or CO 2 emissions. For instance, 1kg of grain-fed beef takes 15 cubic metres of water and 1kg of grass-fed lamb needs 10 cubic metres, while 1kg of cereals needs only 0.4-3 cubic metres.

Buy imported food and you’re buying someone else’s water. Each Kenyan green bean stem is equivalent to four litres of water – and this from an officially water-stressed country. Buying this way is a new colonialism.

A seriously under-acknowledged factor in future food security is labour. If urbanisation is inexorable, who will be the rural labour force? Who will grow the food for the urban majority? Will it be urban agriculture? Gardeners? At present, half the world’s workforce – 1.1 billion workers – work in agriculture. Of this, 450 million (40 per cent) are waged labour, 170 million are children and 20-30 per cent are women working for lower wages, too often in the export trade. It takes a Swedish farmworker five minutes of work to be able to buy 1kg of cereals at his or her local market. An Indian farmworker takes 37 minutes – but a farmworker in the Central African Republic needs to work for six hours to purchase the same. This is the reality the Fairtrade movement has set out to counter, arguing that urban consumers who barely know where their food comes from need to be re-engaged with the sometimes dire and hazardous reality of working on the land.

But attracting people back to conventional farming is difficult. Not only is farming poorly paid, but also, in many parts of the world, it is downright dangerous. Half the 355,000 workplace fatalities the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates occur each year are in agriculture. Pesticides are a significant contribution to this. The ILO estimates pesticides cause about 70,000 acute and longterm poisoning cases annually, leading to death and a much larger number of acute and long-term non-fatal illnesses.

Failed by our institutions

A further huge factor in the security of our food is the state of the institutions put in place to guard it. The dominant policy position within Government appears to be that the UK is rich and can always afford to buy on world markets. Yet it is increasingly clear that the conditions of ‘normality’ under which these policies were formed is unlikely to continue. Food trade ‘liberalisation’ and the pursuit of market solutions that have dominated food politics from the mid-1970s are failing to rise to the sustainability challenge. They are the inheritance of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which created new rules and structures – notably the World Trade Organization and Trade Disputes Mechanism – designed purely to accelerate trade rather than worry about sustainable food systems.

At a global level, the utter lack of joined-up thinking is staggering. The split between the UN advisory bodies – the FAO, WHO, UNEP, ILO and so on – and the financial institutions – the World Bank, WTO and International Monetary Fund – creates endless tensions. Policy-makers concerned about addressing the looming food security crisis tear their hair out in frustration at the failure to see the big picture.

The core fact is that our food institutions are failing to give leadership. This means that NGOs and ordinary citizens must make their voices heard and hold politicians to account. Many in the food sector are nervous, too. Their thoughts and experience should not lightly be dismissed.

The final horsemen

The final hammer-blow to food security is the looming crisis of climate change and peak oil. Climate change itself is a key reason why food security and the resilience of food systems are being discussed so seriously. What if climate change accelerates? Can we predict where and how food can be produced? Do different forms of farming and food production have different impacts on climate? These are vital questions.

Sir Nicholas Stern’s report in 2006 states that agriculture is responsible for 14 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of these, fertilisers were responsible for 38 per cent. Livestock was the second greatest source of agriculture-related GHGs, accounting for 31 per cent. A 2006 European Joint Research Centre life-cycle analysis concurred, finding that the most significant sectors were meat and meat products, and the dairy sector.

The FAO has more recently calculated that livestock generates 18 per cent of total GHG emissions (CO2 equivalent) – more than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation, not to mention a source of ammonia, which acidifies ecosystems. By making a meat-based diet the badge of progress we collude with the indefensible.

In addition to climate change, the effects of peak oil may already be upon us. With oil breaking the $100 a barrel mark, the hidden reliance of supposedly efficient modern food systems on black gold is being startlingly revealed to a generation that has forgotten, or never knew, the crises of the 1970s. Some 95 per cent of food products are oil-dependent, and much of the advances in agricultural productivity rely on mechanisation and fertilisers. Peak oil threatens these advances. In the UK, after three decades in which people have spent ever-smaller proportions of their income on food, the slight price rises of recent months are sending shockwaves. A study for the UK Sustainable Development Commission in 2007, begun when oil was a mere $50 a barrel, estimated that if the price of crude hit $100, food prices would rise between five and 10 per cent. The report was barely released before $100 was breached. As analysts begin to talk of prices reaching $200 a barrel, the million-dollar question is: what would an oil-free food economy look like? Nobody has yet addressed that difficult question.

Where to now?

The demands of the task become clearer by the month. They include how to meet both health and environmental needs; how to produce and distribute enough by agricultural methods that deliver real, not mock ‘sustainability’; how to tame rampant food consumerism in which the rich graze the world’s food cultures while denuding them of meaning; how to farm and distribute food in a low-impact fashion; how to retain nutritional value while fostering cultural appropriateness. In short, how do we produce food that ticks all the boxes: energy, climate, water, social justice, health, eco-systems, labour and so on?

The good news is that there is growing recognition that food security is one of the key challenges facing humanity. The bad news is that the political debate is still thin and warped by the dominant economic nostra. There are serious differences of policy perspective on offer, of which the new rationale of GM is but one. Each side dismisses the other, when the need is for positions to be pulled out, dissected, refined and debated. There are no quick fixes to food security, never were, never will be. Encouraging calm and widespread debate is the only way we can hope to tackle the myriad factors that are converging to put the dinner plate at the top of the 21st century’s list of concerns.

Tim Lang is Professor of Food Policy at City University’s Centre for Food Policy, which is conducting a study of food security and sustainability. He is Land Use Commissioner on the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission and a member of Chatham House’s Food Supply in 21st Century Project. He writes here in a personal capacity

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008

 

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