The European Parliament adopted a resolution which described "global food security" as "a question of the utmost urgency for the European Union" and called for "immediate and continual action to ensure food security for EU citizens and at global level"
"... if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time"
"In May 2009, Franz Fischler, the former EU Agriculture Commissioner, declared that the EU must increase its food production, because even a big improvement in agriculture in developing countries would not be enough to feed the future world population. However, the growing interest in the security of food supplies certainly does not mean that everyone in Europe is agreed on a way forward. .." (See EFRA 2009 report below) The CLA raised the question of whether the UK should have its own policy on securing food supplies at all, or whether it should simply contribute to an EU strategy. Meanwhile, Rob Hopkins of the Transition Network initiative says, "... if we wait for the government, it'll be too little, too late; if we act as individuals, it'll be too little; but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time"
Food sovereignty is defined as the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies.
September 13th 2011 ~ UK food manufacturers, distributors and growers "deeply concerned" about the fragility of the UK food sector. We must have Home Grown solutions
It does at last seem to be becoming clear to many that our reliance on imports makes the UK extremely vulnerable. The Farmers Guardian quotes Laura Sandys MP:
"Protectionism, climatic shocks and changing diets globally are exacerbating a system that is already very fragile. We have been deluded over decades by cheap food...our weak pound places us in an even more vulnerable position. There is much that Government can do to help us mitigate the impacts of food price rises, or at least hedge the extreme volatility
in prices....We have to start to develop some home grown solutions to a global political issue that our electorate will be reminded of every time they sit down to eat." Read in full.
To achieve secure, sustainable food supplies over the next decades, the UK needs more people in agriculture and yet there is a serious shortage of available skills. We learn from a Memorandum submitted by The Soil Association to the EFRA Committee two years ago that the
"UK has historically failed to take advantage of EU schemes providing grants to enable young people to set up in farming.... the average annual take-up of such schemes stood at 24-31,000 people, with France alone accounting for 40% of the scheme. UK take-up was 0%."
In the past, County Council tenancies provided a key "first rung on the farming ladder", but successive Governments have either encouraged or forced Councils to dispose of their farming estate. (See Guardian)
March 4th 2011 ~ "What’s needed is government commitment to food security through its support for a healthy, modern agriculture"
Rare good news from parliament was the inauguration in February of the new All Party group for Agroecology It has among its ranks some of our most respected politicians: Tim Farron, Roger Williams, Andrew George, Michael Meacher, the Countess of Mar and others, and chaired by Baroness Sue Miller and Robert Flello. It has been described as an antidote to Government Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington's "Foresight" report. ("The Future of Food and Farming", while it acknowledges an energy-poor future, still thinks GM crops and high-tech industrial farming provide an appropriate answer.) As Geoffrey Lean pointed out in June 2010 (Telegraph) a United Nations expert group concluded that month
"that "the best option" was not to use ever more fertilisers, pesticides and machines but to adopt the environmentally friendly practices of agro-ecology - planting trees and crops together, mixing livestock and arable farming, and using natural predators to control pests and diseases.... Prof Jules Pretty of Essex University, who looked at 286 projects in 57 developing countries, in the biggest study of its kind, recorded an average 79 per cent increase in yields, while 350,000 acres of land in what used to be called "the Desert of Tanzania"have been rehabilitated in this way over two decades."
March 2nd 2011 ~ "... "its not like an ordinary recession ...you may not get it back for many years, if ever...".Governor of the Bank of England
The UK is now so addicted to cheap oil, to "efficient" just-in-time supply lines and to the economies of scale dependent on easily obtainable credit and cheap energy - that when this trickles away, all our certainties trickle away too. Mervyn King (Independent) says he is surprised there has not been more public fury at the bankers' "mistakes". UKUncut is doing a brilliant job - as is its hastily copied US counterpart - but the media are still reluctant to give this much coverage. What is urgently needed is some honesty - particularly about food security and the need for ordinary people to take some action to protect their futures. Mervyn King is at least telling it like it is:
"its not like an ordinary recession ...you may not get it back for many years, if ever..."
It is going to be up to small communities to do what they can to mitigate the chaos that is round the corner. The very highly recommended Transition Initiative works from the bottom up. This Friday at 8pm in the Totnes Civic Hall, Richard Heinberg (See oil page) will be talking about Transition (See terrific short video of Transition Heathrow ). As he said so wearily a year ago:
"....the strategy being adopted here is denial. ..." Read in full
"Extend and pretend" can't postpone things much longer - as Mervyn King is all too aware. The assumption that if we just grow more, using more "gene-engineered crop varieties" all will be well is a sad fallacy - and it is time to wake up.
March 2nd 2011 ~ "One day when the public realise food doesn't originate from the supermarket shelf ...."
The owner of small family farm in the Peak District, in answer to the query from farmsubsidy.org asking if the farm was a "multi-national" (sic)
" ... we have decided to sell our dairy herd and instead run a few token suckler cows (which) will keep the farm tidy but our productivity will plummet, we will go from significant food producers to park keepers. One day when the public realise food doesn't originate from the supermarket shelf we will once again be in demand and the supermarkets, middle ground retailers and idiot discount chains will come round with their begging bowls asking us to start farming productively again. I look forward to telling them where to shove it!
....Don’t even get me started on the return on investment which you would expect from the capital invested in any other business.."
January 23 2010 ~ " we need radical changes within 20 years" Patrick Holden
Well worth reading in full is this article from the Western Morning News by Anthony Gibson. Written on Jan 14th it describes both the Oxford Farming Conference and the Fringe event that took place yards away under the chairmanship of Sir Crispin Tickell, one of Prince Charles' most trusted advisers. Sir Crispin made it very clear that he considers
".. the divide which is emerging between the mainstream and the alternative is neither valid nor helpful...alternative ideas..should be debated at the main conference alongside the more conventional solutions.." Read in full
Colin Tudge, founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, was the first speaker at the Fringe conference:
"Over the last 30 years we have seen the dissolution of British agriculture, so we start from a very low base. .. the reason we have failed miserably is entirely about farming methods. And I don't think it's in the power of those over the road to be able to do anything. It's absolutely wicked if we don't try. Natural polyculture translates into mixed farming, focusing on plants
and leaving enough land for livestock. If you farm in that way you finish up with plenty of plants, not much meat, but lots of variety. Farming well will be absolutely compatible with good nutrition and the finest gastronomy. And we could be self reliant on food in this country."
On the subject of GM crops, Professor Martin Wolfe, of the Organic Research Centre, said GM foods could harbour serious problems.
"The more diversity you have the better chance there is for a good, sustainable system. We need to re-integrate agriculture into the natural world."
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said that the threats to food security needed to be reversed with a return to the rotation of crops. He says we need those radical changes within 20 years. More detail at www.meattradenewsdaily.co.uk
Monday January 11th 2010 ~ "we won't get the crisis measures we need for our food system until the crisis has already hit.." Telegraph
Telegraph "We can no longer take our food supply for granted," writes Bee Wilson, the Guild of Food Writers' food journalist of the year.
"For years, academics such as Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, gave warning that we were "sleepwalking" into a future where our food security was likely to be seriously undermined..... For years, the Government told us everything was fine."
She is writing about Food 2030 calling it
a long overdue acknowledgment of farming and that "unlike Gordon Brown, food is something we can't do without." The problem, she says, is that there are few signs of any serious steps to make the necessary renaissance in British farming come about. Sharing our distaste for DEFRAspeak, she notes that: "..The report blethers about such things as the "milk roadmap" and the "fruit and vegetable task force" but can find no "serious new injection of either money or laws to aid farmers". She is fair enough to add
"It is all too easy to attack the "2030" report for its typical Brownian mix of hypocrisy and impotence."
but wonders, as do so many of us, about the alternative. She notes that in spite of apparent support for the grocery ombudsman and honest labelling, David Cameron "has stopped short of spelling out what the "sustainable farming" he favours might really entail." She concludes by quoting
Colin Tudge's view that our politicians are "dangerously deluded" about farming...." Read article in full. At least the Lib Dem's Tim Farron shows a grasp of rural affairs, taking a sour look at DEFRA, at animal health policy and at the countless consultations - adding: "It's crazy that farmers are being dictated to by bureaucrats, especially when they're the ones who are left to pick up the pieces from the government's mistakes. If we want British farming to continue to be the best and most entrepreneurial in the world, then we must put farmers at the heart of policy decision making.". (see FWi)
January 10 2010 ~ " We just assume everything will be on the supermarket shelves..."
The continuing brutal weather means crops cannot be gathered and deliveries are under threatSky News quotes
Stephen Alambritis, of the Federation of Small Businesses:
"There is concern that farmers have not been able to bring the harvest in for such items as potatoes, sprouts and cabbages which reduces the amount available to stores - and pushes up prices."
The weather is forcing some dairy farmers to throw fresh milk away because tankers can't get through, As Sky News acknowledges a "snow day" under the duvet at home is not an option for the farming community and quotes a Northern Ireland farmer, Wallace Gregg:
"I think sometimes we forget just how powerful mother nature can be. We just assume everything will be on the supermarket shelves and that it will just be there but it's made on farms and we have to remember that."
January 10th 2010 ~ Hilary Benn denies that Defra "advises the public not to buy local produce".
"...Indeed, just before Christmas, Defra organised a special event at New Covent Garden Market to promote some of the great locally produced food from around the country. The latest food to get name protection under the EU scheme is the Cornish sardine.
Locally produced food bought in season has a smaller environmental footprint. I support it being promoted as much as possible. Buying local produce supports British farming."
However, the EU's thoughtful protectiveness towards the Cornish sardine and Hilary Benn's support for buying "seasonal" local produce notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that DEFRA's Food 2030 (pdf) clearly states on page 47
".. emissions from transporting food will be offset by lower production emissions compared to a local alternative." and ".. If they (i.e.local producers) do have alternative markets the economic benefits of buying local products are small. Conversely, choosing local produce over imports can reduce the prosperity of communities in developing countries that do not have alternative high value markets for their products."
The added clause ".. that do not have alternative high value markets for their products" is hardly enough to make irrelevant the worry expressed by this letter from 12 Development Agencies sent to the Groceries Market Inquiry about how UK grocery retailers "continue to engage in irresponsible buying practices with overseas suppliers, which include violations of the Supermarket Code" (read in full) There is much of enormous value in the document Food 2030 but our concerns remain.
January 10th 2010 ~ "Farmers must be allowed to concentrate on producing food
There is more to farming than 'enhancing' the environment."
"... As beef and sheep producers on a remote hill farm we are being forced by Natural England to reduce livestock numbers in a misguided attempt to "enhance" the environment...If, as suggested by the report, Food 2030, food becomes scarce, it will be almost impossible to restock the uplands with "hefted" livestock ..It is extraordinary that the DEFRA has allowed Natural England to play such an important role in the introduction of Upland Entry Level Stewardship, which will "reward hill farmers and land managers for delivering environmental and landscape benefits". There is no role for food production and farming in the remit."
".... We are in a protectionist customs union, subject to onerous regulations that are ruining our farmers and fishermen and causing stagnation in our manufacturing industry. It will not get better until it dawns on politicians that we would be far better off out."
January 4 2010 ~ "the report will urge consumers not to insist on buying locally-produced food, because doing so would reduce the prosperity of farmers in developing countries."
DEFRA's forthcoming food strategy paper will - extraordinarily - dismiss the Professor Tim Lang's concept of "food miles" - reported the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. It also ignores what NGOs have been saying; how very far from increasing the prosperity of farmers in developing countries buying practices with overseas suppliers still are.
In the Competition Commission Inquiry into the Groceries Market - in the section entitled '3rd Party Submissions from NGOs and Charitable Organisations', evidence given in this letter from 12 NGOs shows that workers in exporting countries are getting a wage - but a very poor one. The letter speaks of
"detrimental impacts of such buying practices on farmers, farm workers and suppliers in developing countries, as well as on levels of poverty more generally, are well documented. They include lower pay, longer hours, poor health and safety conditions and increased use of temporary contracts for workers, as well as increased vulnerability and barriers to entry for small producers."
A separate matter is the increasingly fragile nature of these long distance supply lines. As we reported in 2008, when the prices of oil and commodities shot up the shutters came down in some of the exporting countries in the developing world. On the whole, in this sort of crisis, governments prefer to feed their populations rather than have food riots.
January 4th 2010 ~ DEFRA report will tell us to accept GM
The Sunday Telegraph says that DEFRA's comprehensive food strategy for the next 20 years, to be unveiled this week, will tell the public that it "must accept genetically-modified food." Again, this ignores what many experts are saying. Last July, the Sustainable Development Commission's recommendations to Government Food Security and Sustainability: The perfect fit (pdf), led by Professor Tim Lang, said of GM that some people regard
" .. technologies such as genetic
modification and a new era of hi-tech
industrialised farming as the way forward,
dismissing more sustainable lower-input
agriculture as irrelevant. But the systematic
International Assessment of Agricultural
Science, Technology and Development
knowledge, co-initiated and led by the current
Chief Scientist at Defra when at the World Bank,
suggests that more ecological solutions, based
on engaging and supporting small farmers could
yield the most dramatic change. Reliance on
single technology solutions is unlikely to resolve
the complex array of problems ahead, which
are partly social, partly environmental and
partly about control over food systems"
January 4 2010 ~ "how to deliver optimum
levels of home production, sustainably"
In last July's Sustainable Development Commission's recommendations to Government Food Security and Sustainability: The perfect fit (pdf), DEFRA was recommended to "undertake specific sector
assessments for grain, meat and dairy, fruit,
vegetables, fibre and forestry, assessing them
for their contribution to home consumption,
environment, employment, economy and
health, and indicating how to deliver optimum
levels of home production, sustainably." We remember Dr James Bellini, a year ago, telling us on Radio 4 to make some very radical lifestyle changes in the next fifteen or twenty years if it's going to have any effect at all - not importing or genetically modifying our livestock and crops, but getting back to traditional seasonal food grown locally. The loss of fossil fuel energy and fertilisers is going to make the UK vulnerable to food shortages for the first time since the Second World War. The government is finally waking up to this - but many would say that some of the solutions suggested in its food strategy paper are suicidally foolish. The Sunday Telegraph also reports on the fact
that five months ago Government negotiators opposed mandatory labelling in talks held with European Union member states.
"Leaked papers from the European Council reveal how 11 countries, including France and Italy, called for mandatory origin labels on all non-processed food. The amendment, put at a meeting on July 31, was defeated by the UK and nine other countries. "
Nick Herbert is quoted ".. Ministers have been caught out promising action to British farmers and consumers while their officials have been voting against the policy in Brussels."
November 30 2009 ~ Free feast on December 16 will highlight "the injustice of a world in which some have food to waste while others go hungry".
The Independent reports on Tristram Stuart's brilliant idea of feeding the 5,000 (passers-by in Trafalgar Square) with food that would otherwise be thrown away. The event will involve soup and smoothies - and will "highlight the social and environmental costs of food waste".
We read that food of a value of about £480 a year is wasted per average household.
The Bishop of London , Richard Chartres, is quoted: "...Jesus told his disciples after feeding the 5000 to 'gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost'. At the Feeding the 5000 event, 5000 people will be fed from ingredients which otherwise would have been thrown away."
Tristram Stuart's book, Waste, was described on Sept 9th below.
November 18 2009 ~ "So many constraints" prevent countries from fighting hunger
From the AFP report about the World Summit on Food Security in Rome "....Ambroise Mazal, from the French non-governmental organisation CCFD-Terre cites the case of Malawi which, (as we heard on the BBC's PM programme on Monday), has successfully - but against the wishes of the WTO, which withdrew financing - introduced a system of subsidies to smallholder farmers. It has made a huge difference to households. Malawi no longer imports its staple crop maize but actually exports its excess.
As Mazal comments: "On one hand, there is the FAO which urges the protection of markets and aid to smallholder farmers, on the other there is the WTO (World Trade Organisation) which urges competition and the opening up of markets " In a 2008 interview in Hungary, Patrick Mulvany, whose work focuses on food sovereignty and the related issues of the governance of agriculture, biodiversity and technology, said of the WTO:
"...It has been part of the globalisation, the liberalisation of markets, project to ensure that trade increased, that local control of agriculture and food production diminished, that stocks were run down.. .....what has been promoted, with the blessing and pushing of transnational corporations in these food summits and in the press, in the media every day, is an increase in input of fertilizers, of pesticides, a simplification of the production system, using fewer genes, mostly genetically modified, to have their way to a high input low diversity system . the alternative is essentially food sovereignty. The alternative is essentially localising food systems.. enabling people to take more control...working with nature rather than against nature; of developing local knowledge and skills, localising markets. "
November 16 2009 ~ "they don't really put food, and human beings, and the fabric of the Earth itself, at the top of their agenda."
Today is World Food Day.
FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf says, "The silent hunger crisis - affecting one sixth of all of humanity - poses a serious risk for world peace and security. We urgently need to forge a broad consensus on the total and rapid eradication of hunger in the world... The global food insecurity situation has worsened and continues to represent a serious threat for humanity.." The much respected Colin Tudge, author of books such as "Feeding people is Easy" which concludes we can, without cruelty to livestock and without wrecking the rest of the world, feed everyone, runs a down-to-earth and very readable blog called Campaign for Real Farming. The entry on DEFRA's Food Policy Unit Campaign in August, for example, is generous to DEFRA's intentions but points out the fundamental flaw
"...Defra and the British government in general will never solve the world's food problems -- because they don't really put food, and human beings, and the fabric of the Earth itself, at the top of their agenda. For governments, the economic dogma comes first... ...The principles of biology tell us what it is possible to do; and the agreed principles of morality tell us what we ought to do: what it is right to do..."
November 16 2009 ~ "we must nourish the indigenous agriculture and build on it. Absolutely not, as now, should we contrive to sweep it aside in favour of western agroindustry"
Colin Tudge's most recent entry concerns Bob Orskov of the Macaulay Institute, Aberdeen, an honorary professor of Aberdeen University, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who travels to many parts of the world
trying to assist in rural development. He also happens to be one of the world's leading animal nutritionists.
"Above all," says Tudge," he retains enormous respect for peasant farmers. if we seriously want to feed everybody well and forever and create societies that are truly tolerable to live in, then we must nourish the indigenous agriculture and build on it. Absolutely not, as now, should we contrive to sweep it aside in favour of western agroindustry. Science has many a crucial role to play in this -- not to replace what's there, but to enhance it..."
Here (in a brief and impressive 8 page pdf file - or see html alternative) he explains how and why. Many of the speeches likely to be heard in Rome in the next two days will, of course, be well intentioned, even passionate - but somehow, the simple humanity of Bob Orskov's summary seems so much more obvious quiet good sense.
November 14 2009 ~ Hours before the opening of the World Summit on Food Security FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf began a 24 hour hunger strike..
.. to call for action to end the scourge of hunger and in solidarity with the one billion humans who suffer chronic malnutrition.
He called on "people of goodwill everywhere" to join him in a worldwide hunger strike this weekend. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has announced he will be joining the strike on Sunday. ....
Diouf began his fast at 8pm yesterday in the lobby of FAO headquarters in Rome, where he also spent the night. ..:
"We have the technical means and the resources to eradicate hunger from the world so it is now a matter of political will, and political will is influenced by public opinion."
The big winners from the crisis were not the farmers, as one might have expected. They enjoyed a big increase in the prices they were paid at the farm gate, but all their potential income gains were gobbled up by higher production costs. The people who made a real killing were the suppliers of agricultural inputs. With their quasi-monopoly control over seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and machinery, these giant companies made obscene profits out of the higher prices squeezed out of largely poor populations...
Close on their heels in the ranking of the profiteers came the world's largest grain traders. ... Cargill, the world's largest grain trader, reported an increase in profits in 2008 of nearly 70 per cent over 2007...
China... While self-sufficient in food at the moment, it has a huge population, its agricultural lands have been disappearing to industrial development and its water supplies are under serious stress. With 40 per cent of the world's farmers but only 9 per cent of the world's farmland, it should surprise no one that food security is high on the Chinese government's agenda. And with more than $1.8 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, China has deep pockets from which to invest in its own food security abroad.....
Africa is under heavy assault. ...already been reports of some of the leased land being protected by private security firms.
There is much to worry us about the new carve-up. Some of the world's poorest countries are letting go of land that they need to feed their own populations......
The day that the food starts to run out in the world may come far more quickly than most of us imagine. ...
Yet, in this dog-eat-dog world, the very actions that the rich countries are taking will increase the likelihood of a global food shortage..."
October 21 2009 ~ "an urgent need to clarify whether these risks are financial, to investors, or environmental"
The Royal Society's report Reaping the Benefits: Science and the Sustainable Intensification of Global Agriculture
does acknowledge that genetic modification can, (as the BBC puts it), " ... lead to problems such as the unwanted spread of inserted genes into neighbouring wild plants" but
Professor Joe Perry of Rothamsted Research who welcomes the report also says that he finds it
"surprising that no mention is made of the environmental risks to biodiversity associated with broad-spectrum herbicide-tolerant systems. In addition, whilst the authors support what they describe as 'long-term, high-risk approaches to high-return targets in genetic improvement of crops', the report makes no mention of why these approaches are 'high risk'. There is an urgent need to clarify whether these risks are financial, to investors, or environmental. The recommendations regarding regulation are also welcome, but might also have stressed the need for improved transparency."
has provoked more predictable concern from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Genewatch UK.
Becky Price, a researcher with GeneWatch UK says
"The use of transgenics is often described as a powerful tool. However to date, the only widely used traits developed by genetic modification are herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance."
Food Ethics Council gives a "cautious welcome" saying:
" it recognises that technology - including GM - is no magic bullet in the fight against hunger. We are encouraged by the Royal Society's understanding that social and economic policies must also be in place to ensure food security."
However, the Council is concerned that the report
"assumes that feeding people is about growing food, not how it's distributed and consumed. It fails to face up to the fact that a billion people already people go hungry, while many more are buying - and throwing away - more food than they need."
October 21 2009 ~ "Science has a key role to play in reducing hunger and poverty, but the report's focus on GM crops ignores mounting evidence that this technology is failing..." Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran on the publication of the Royal Society report
Friends of the Earth says today:
"Commenting on a new Royal Society report on science and food, published today, Friends of the Earth's GM campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said: "Science has a key role to play in reducing hunger and poverty, but the report's focus on GM crops ignores mounting evidence that this technology is failing.
GM crops are an extension of big-business factory farming that is already wiping out wildlife, destroying communities and making climate change worse.
The UK Government has already invested millions of pounds in GM technology, with little benefit to farmers, consumers and the planet - meanwhile research into green farming methods have been starved of funds.
Any attempt to combat the global food crisis must also address its root causes, such as industrial livestock production and a narrow focus on increasing yields - an analysis which is missing from the Royal Society report.
A massive increase in investment is needed in agricultural science - but this should focus on supporting traditional farming methods and providing safe, planet-friendly food." A more detailed assessment of the Royal Society report can be obtained from Friends of the Earth campaigners. "
October 21 2009 ~ "Why is an organisation like the Royal Society banging the drum for a failing technology when exciting new developments such as Marker Assisted Selection, included in the report recommendations, are producing almost all of the successful innovations in crop breeding?" Emma Hockridge, Soil Association's policy coordinator
Not surprisingly, the Soil Association regrets the highlighting of GM "when exciting new developments such as Marker Assisted Selection, included in the report recommendations, are producing almost all of the successful innovations in crop breeding."
In August, we reported on the recent report (Agriculture at a Crossroads) of the
Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), produced under the directorship of Professor Bob Watson, and co-sponsored by the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO, The report examined the role of agricultural knowledge, science
and technology (AKST) and seemed even-handed and cool in its examination of the part to be played by varous forms of genetic modification
"in reducing hunger and poverty,
improving rural livelihoods and facilitating environmentally,
socially and economically sustainable development"
Executive Summary warned that: ".. instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability.. " It also took serious note of the threat to neighbouring organic farmers, and conventional farmers who
"may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops..."
It would be foolish to deny that genetic modification has the potential for benign uses but many are nevertheless concerned by the power now resting in the hands of the biggest agrichemical companies. An extract from the IAASTD Synthesis Report
Executive Summary warns that: ".. instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability..."
October 13 2009 ~producing more and impacting less
Can science and technology help to ensure food security? In the Farmers Guardian, Alistair Driver reports on a joint initiative by the Technology Strategy Board, Defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform.
"Research will cover areas like crop productivity, sustainable livestock production, waste reduction and management and greenhouse gas reduction."
Oct 5 2009 ~ "..people who give a damn need to ask the questions for ourselves.."
The Telegraph reports today on the Mexican rubbish dump that has been transformed into an urban garden
"a patch of land once strewn with the detritus associated with one of the world's largest cities, there now sits a 400 square metre (4,305 square feet) garden....
In Iztapalapa fruit and vegetables are grown in mini-gardens, on roofs and even on the walls of buildings. ..."
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports today that "a growing number of Americans rolling up their sleeves and digging into the dirt to raise crops or livestock on a small scale." In the global recession and growing awareness of peak oil, local food production is now more and more seen as a necessity rather than a hobby. Similar grass roots initiatives in food security, such as the Transition Initiative gather strength in the oil-addicted West. As Colin Tudge said recently, "Since the government is unlikely to act this side of food riots (which it will treat at "terrorism" and call out the riot police) people who give a damn need to ask the questions for ourselves.."
September 19/20 2009 ~ When local food supplies and cooperation could make the difference between life and death
'Systems collapse' is a concept we're getting more used to, together with the feeling that we are not quite the king pins of creation that we once thought. Although there has been very little popular coverage of it, a US National Academies' National Research Council report of 2008, Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding
Societal and Economic Impacts Workshop Report (pdf too heavy but free access here), warns that because electricity is not storable in form and the production of electrical energy must be instantaneously matched to the current
"Geomagnetic storms can cause widespread electrical blackouts, which could
result in significant loss of life, as well as a potential GDP loss in the billions of dollars... "
Solar storms (sometimes observed as Aurora Borealis effects) could even wipe out the infrastructure of civilisation for long enough to cause devastation. Extreme space weather can bring modern technology to its knees. The report says that although the probability of a wide-area electric
power blackout resulting from an extreme space weather event may be considered low,
"...effects would cascade through other, dependent systems. Collateral effects of a longer-term
outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance
systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and
the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration. The resulting loss of services for a
significant period of time in even one region of the country could affect the entire nation and have international
impacts as well..".
Two decades ago in 1989, Canada's northeastern Hydro-Quebec power grid collapsed during a severe geomagnetic storm. It left millions of people without electricity for 9 hours. The great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm. A similar surge in modern times, now that power lines are networked and integrated, could, according to the Metatech Corporation, put more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. Communication satellites (GPS) and radio frequencies would be down. With that level of damage, back up generators would not be able to help much and the disruption could last for so long that the material things upon which we depend in order to be civilised would start to fall apart disastrously.
A powerfully destructive space weather
event could occur at any moment and accurate prediction is still very challenging. We are thought to be approaching a new interval of increased solar activity; how well equipped are we to
manage the effects of space weather? The availability of local food, the urgency of "powering down" and the nurturing by the Transition Town initiative of community cooperation - all these are looking more relevant by the day.
September 19 2009 ~ "Nobody can produce milk at these prices." Europe's dairy farming is in deep trouble.
On Thursday the EU insisted it would not abandon long-term farm reforms that include phasing out milk quotas after 2015. Yesterday, in a dramatic demonstration against low prices and the EU's plan to end quotas, about 925,000 gallons of fresh milk were poured onto fields in Brittany near Mont St Michel by french farmers. This follows the similar action by Belgian farmers on Wednesday when they sprayed 790,000 gallons of fresh milk onto their fields. Milk farmers' groups say that world prices have sunk so much they are having to sell milk at half their production costs, leaving more and more farmers unable to pay their bills. France still has a Minister of Agriculture and Bruno Le Maire met trade union leaders today (Saturday) hoping to reassure them. Pascal Massol, a Breton farmer who leads the French protests, says, "If we go on for another three months like this, 40 percent of French milk producers will be condemned to bankruptcy." Britain itself has become reliant on milk imports from Holland, Belgium and Northern Ireland as our own dairy production has ebbed. ( It is now a year ago that Chinese milk products were found to be contaminated by melamine. ) Sunday's Observer update here "...given the soaring costs of fuel and food for cattle, it means that most UK dairy farmers are now selling their milk at a loss.....Some are refusing to deliver their milk, sparking fears of widespread shortages that could begin this week."
September 17 2009 ~ Not-for-profit Community Land Bank -
an answer to too few allotments and the rapid rise in demand for land to cultivate for food?
The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG), a charity to support local people who want to manage their local green spaces, would like to run a not-for-profit Community Land Bank. Some estimate that there are now 100,000 people on waiting lists for the 300,000 plots available across the country and demand is out of proportion to supply yet local authorities, private landlords, private companies or institutions with green spaces, such as hospitals, school grounds and under-used land around social housing developments could provide opportunities. Farmers wishing to diversify might provide space
The Landshare scheme and the Transition movement, much admired on this site, are mentioned below.
Jeremy Iles, the director of The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, says (at www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments)
It's still early days yet, but to date, responses from a wide range of stakeholders have been positive. And who knows, down the line the Community Land Bank might just help the word 'bank' get a better press in the future....The Bank would negotiate for land, hold it and then release it to user groups under legally enforceable contracts, attracting charitable funding as appropriate, and facilitate transfers of tenants (community gardening groups) across a portfolio of land holdings. The Land Bank would also arrange insurance and ensure legal and technical compliance. In effect, it would be a safe pair of hands in which both land owners and users could trust."
September 5 2009 ~ Government must back up its call for UK to be less vulnerable to food crises, says NBA
In its current newsletter, the National Beef Association pulls no punches, calling DEFRA "an impoverished, second tier department" because of the Government's ever dimmer perception of the importance of home food production. If future political and economic stability is not to be undermined by the global crisis and in order to safeguard food security in the UK, the NBA considers that DEFRA needs to instill its staff with a new expertise and find additional funds for substantial investment in new research, science and technology.
"Between 1986 and 1998 there was a 45 per cent cut in publicly funded agricultural science and since 1998 there have been further savage cuts.." The NBA says it envisages a new kind of work to explore methods not just of producing more food within the UK but also making sure that it is grown efficiently.
August 27 2009 ~ " Farmers aren't the enemy - and they deserve real help...."
The warning in Time magazine's article on the state of food production in America is of "a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs- and bland taste". Disastrous soil erosion, the creation of "dead zones" in the sea, mass obesity, antibiotic abuse seem now to be producing an ever-growing unease about the ethics of huge farms and CAFOs (concentrated-animal feeding operations).
As we saw with DEFRA's well-meaning recent statements, stating that we need to "rethink" is easier than finding comprehensive solutions. All the same, as in the UK, the local-food movement really is growing, along with a hard headed realisation that
"worldwide, organic food - a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food - is worth more than 46 billion dollars. That's still a small slice of the overall food pie, but it's growing, even in a global recession. "There is more pent-up demand for organic than there is production," says Bill Wolf, a co-founder of the organic-food consultancy Wolf DiMatteo and Associates. (Watch TIME's video "The New Frugality: The Organic Gardener.")
And although more farm workers are required to produce sustainable food, that's hardly a bad thing. Too many 'ordinary' farmers on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to make ends meet so that the rest of us can "enjoy" the cheap food that's killing us. Read Time article in full
August 16 2009 ~ Britain's farmers - "strangled by such thickets of EU regulation, only made worse by the control-freakery of our own officials, that the idea of "food security" is a sick joke."
"....In January the imposition, against the UK's wishes, of the EU's electronic tagging system for sheep (of which we still have 25 per cent of the EU's total) will be so costly in time and money that thousands of sheep farmers fear they will have to give up. Our fast-shrinking dairy industry is reeling from Mr Benn's refusal to take any action to halt the epidemic of bovine TB caught from Britain's rapidly expanding population of badgers. For this we kill 40,000 cattle a year, at a cost to taxpayers alone officially estimated to total £2 billion 2014 within four years.
None of these issues, all highly relevant to Britain's food security, are mentioned in Mr Benn's dismal little pamphlet. He goes on about how we must improve "food labelling" and the procurement system to allow more British food to be bought by the public sector, without admitting that the power to make the rules on both is an EU "competence". ...."
Saturday August 15 2009 ~ Science posts to go at the Institute of Food Research
The future of the Institute of Food Research at Norwich Research Park, Colney (IFR)
"... a world leader in research into harnessing food for health and controlling food-related diseases, is the only publicly funded research organisation in England dedicated to food science."
may be in jeopardy. "as the result of spiralling costs and funding pressures..." See edp24.co.uk The two-thirds core funding provided by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) has not been increased in line with inflation since 2005.
Norwich South MP Charles Clarke calls this "disappointing news" and adds that "it's very important to press for increased funding for this vital research for our futures."
At a time when diet and nutrition are under the spotlight, and we have seen so many paragraphs and graphs from DEFRA this week on the subject of food security (see below) the loss of such skilled senior scientists and researchers (40 out of 180) surely reveals an extraordinary lack of policy on the part of government.
Questions are being raised over the very future of the Institute, the only publicly funded research organisation in England dedicated to food science.
August 13 2009 ~"Never before has it been more important for
the world to generate and use agricultural knowledge, science
Under the Directorship of Professor Bob Watson, the International Assessment
of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) co-sponsored by the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO appears to be a genuine and rigorous attempt to examine the role of agricultural knowledge, science
and technology (AKST) "in reducing hunger and poverty,
improving rural livelihoods and facilitating environmentally,
socially and economically sustainable development". Its latest publication (Agriculture at a Crossroads) seems even-handed and cool in its examination of the part to be played by varous forms of genetic modification. However, an extract from the IAASTD Synthesis Report
Executive Summary warns that: ".. instruments such as patents may drive up costs, restrict experimentation by the individual farmer or public researcher while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability..."
August 13 2009 ~ "Farmers face new liabilities" says IAASTD of GM patents
The same Executive Summary takes very seriously the threat to neighbouring organic farmers, and conventional farmers who "may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops..." Monday's statement from Hilary Benn that a
'Radical rethink' is needed on food supply included the sentence that
"If GM can make a contribution then we have a choice as a society about whether to make use of that technology..."
While not a statement of policy, this has been seized upon by some journalists (notably in the Mirror with its predictable reference to 'Frankenstein Food'.) It would be foolish to deny that genetic modification has the potential for benign uses as the IAASTD acknowledges - but many are nevertheless concerned by the power now resting in the hands of the biggest agrichemical companies.
August 10 2009 ~ calling for more domestic food production is one thing...
Felicity Lawrence in the Guardian this afternoon points out the contradictions in today's publications from DEFRA.
".. Here's the old view that our position as a trading nation allows us to source our food from an incredibly diverse global supply....yet here too is acknowledgement that the pressure of oil prices on fertiliser and transport costs, or increasing competition of scarce global water, to give just two examples, are likely to affect these global markets dramatically..."
And as the EFRA Committee Report (see below) commented in July, " Defra must recognise that calling for more domestic food production is one thing, but it cannot order that this be done.." Valerie Elliott in the Times emphasised the likely "vegetarian" nature of the future. With several key DEFRA personnel actual vegetarians - in particular Hilary Benn and Jim Fitzpatrick - it is worrying to note the insouciance with which animal disease seems to be being viewed as no real problem for food supply. It gets a green light in the Summary chart and we read, "Evidence of disease losses shows that only minor proportions of EU and global supply are typically affected"
August 10 2009 ~ DEFRA's "UK food security assessment" published today
DEFRA's publications on food security can be accessed online today. Hilary Benn can be watched on YouTube ( "It's a big challenge that we face and I look forward to working with you on it.") The "Detailed Analysis" - a pdf file of 1.6MB (designed, developed and compiled by an interdisciplinary team of analysts in Defra's
Food and Farming Group) can be seen here. Its six "themes": 1. Global availability
2. Global resource
3. UK availability and
4. UK food chain
5. Household food
6. Safety and confidence
The UK Food Security Assessment: Summary is a single chart (pdf) indicating how DEFRA views the availability and the future security of food under the various headings. Red, amber and green symbols are used to indicate the current and likely future (10 year) position. ( Unfortunately this is very difficult to follow on screen and one needs the ability to print in A3 to read it off screen.)
Various reactions in the press can be found on Google The NFU's reaction, for example,
(Extract: "We look forward to contributing to the development of indicators for a sustainable food system but these indicators must focus on the sustainability of imported food, not just that which is domestically produced. It would make no sense to insist our production was sustainable but increasingly rely on imports that are not." is here)
Channel 4 News chooses to ask the question tonight: "Should we use more British land to grow food? It is a fundamental question about how we tackle our increasing needs, and the risks of growing prices."
August 10 2009 ~ "cereal crops would be used to feed the nation"
Valerie Elliot's article in today's Times has the headline: "Food crisis could force wartime rations and vegetarian diet on Britons". Extract:
".....Hilary Benn, the Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for food policy, has ordered officials to prepare for a scenario where the country could feed itself. In the event of an extreme emergency the most dramatic consequence would be every person eating a predominantly vegetarian diet - more cereals, fruit and vegetables and less meat and poultry. Cereals used to feed farm animals would be shifted into human food production. ..."
Those comments from the public that are calm and considered tend to criticise the article for failing to mention home growing as a solution, the risk of global water shortage and the urgent need for population control. The trend among comments is that relying on bio-tech companies and GM foodstuffs is not the answer - indeed, very much the reverse.
August 10 2009 ~ DEFRA initiates a "Food 2030 online discussion"
"....These web pages provide an opportunity to discuss the challenges and other issues affecting the food system. They also provide a place to discuss the shape of the future food system. Food 2030 looks both at the food we produce and consume in the UK, and how global food production can be increased in a sustainable way.
We would like to hear your views on these issues..."
August 9 2009 ~ Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents
From the EFRA Select Committee's report- July 2009.
3 DEFRA'S VISION FOR FOOD
The role of Defra - see below
August 6 2009 ~ What does that mean when farmers can no longer save seeds? When farmers have to be consumers instead of producers?
A chilling - because so reasoned and calm - short interview on You Tube with Claire Hope Cummings - a former USDA lawyer in Carter's administration.
She says that the global agri-chemical companies now seriously threaten the livelihoods of farmers and the environment. She says their efforts have nothing to do with feeding the world; it's for more old-fashioned reasons, the pursuit of power and profit. Capitalism rewards risk but these corporations use their monopolistic power (they own two thirds of the seeds used in agriculture) to limit choice of seeds and people's ability to re-use the seeds for future harvests or conduct further breeding research. Their own risk is transferred to others while they reap the huge profits. "It's really about power, about control."
August 3/4 2009 ~ Soil - not oil. "...we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake."
An article in the New York Times by Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry reminds us that unlike oil, soil "has no technological substitute - and no powerful friends in the halls of government." They speak of "an insupportable abuse and waste of soil.." made worse by huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure, while "the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals".
"...Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.... The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals..."
By "increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution...with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture - provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.Their call for a 50 year farm bill is a political issue - but one that "transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs." Read in full
August 3/4 2009 ~ EU donates 34 million euros to the UN World Food Programme (WFP)
WFP schemes, helping mostly female small-scale farmers grow food more efficiently in Bolivia, Guatemala, Senegal, Nepal and the Philippines, will receive the additional spending from the EU's 1 billion euro Food Facility fund. "WFP projects, such as collective farming, crop diversification, and food-for-work programmes aimed at improving irrigation and flood resistance, will be coordinated with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)". See report at www.un.org
July 26 2009 ~ In India, the prices of edible oils, vegetables, rice, wheat and other food items have been increasing without respite.
newkerala.com reports that price rises have also been fuelled by the hike in the price of petrol and diesel. Left wing partiies want inter state protests against the price rises and want the Delhi government to provide pulses and edible oils at subsidised rates through the Public Distribution System (PDS). A joint statement from the Left parties says that drought is expected in many states as a result of deficient rainfall - and this would further put pressure on the prices of food items.
July 17 2009 ~ "Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda"
The whole of the G8's statement last week can be read here.
Monday July 6 2009 ~ The G8 countries aim for long-term investments in farming in the developed world
Much in the press this morning (e.g. Telegraph) on the G8's decision to give 12 billion dollars for agricultural development over the next three years as part of a "food security initiative" in countries that have formerly received food aid. Hilary Clinton is quoted: For too long, our primary response [to fight hunger] has been to send emergency [food] aid when the crisis is at its worst," Ms Clinton said last month. "This saves lives, but it doesn't address hunger's root causes. It is, at best, a short-term fix."
Japan, like the US, is to spend 3-4 billion dollars on the initiative. Japanese officials say that the recent food crisis stems from decades of underinvestment in agriculture.
However, the UN will warn today that a reduction in foreign aid could cause more hunger and disease. The global recession has forced up to 90 million more people into extreme poverty.
April 24 2009 ~ Manchester's brilliant plan: 'These are public areas and there is no reason why people shouldn't be able to help themselves to the produce grown.'
The Mail reported on Wednesday that Manchester is going to use its 135 parks to grow food for everyone.
"....The scheme will also see around 20,000 soft fruit bushes introduced across the city.
The three-year plan aims to reintroduce rare fruits such as mulberries, damsons and greengages.
The plants will have signs telling people their name and the right time of year to pick them.
Vegetable patches will also be created, but because they need more work the produce will go to the volunteers who tend them.
Beehives are also being set up at a number of sites across the city - each capable of producing up to 80lb of honey a year. ..."
What an encouraging and refreshing article. Manchester Council's Parks and Leisure officer is quoted; "We were amazed by the number of young people who told us they didn't know where fruit and veg came from." (And of course, even less do they know from where and from what supermarket plastic-wrapped meats come.)
16 April 2009 ~ "if you destroy the capacity of the people to work the land and the capacity of soil to produce, you're going to have hunger. "
India's groundwater aquifers are quickly disappearing from over-pumping. The country holds 20% of the global population but gets only 4% of the world's annual supply of fresh water. An article in the New Yorker explained in 2006,
"There were two million wells in India thirty years ago; today, there are twenty-three million...people have no choice but to dig deeper. Drill too deep, though, and saltwater and arsenic can begin to seep in... As sources dry up and wells are abandoned, farmers have turned on each other and on themselves."
Yesterday's Belfast Telegraph article on the reasons for so many farmer suicides in the Indian
agricultural state of Chattisgarh was reproduced in full in the Independent
Vandana Shiva's words seem more and more relevant. While policy-makers try to get to grips with global crises it is important to consider what created them in the first place. She considers that giants like Monsanto and Cargill aim at controlling vital resources, converting them profit underwritten by public finances. As she said in an interview last May,
"food ultimately is not produced in the speculation and commodity exchanges controlled by Cargill in Chicago. It is produced by hard working women and men working with the soil and sun. And if you destroy the capacity of the people to work the land and the capacity of soil to produce, you're going to have hunger... We need more farms producing more locally-grown foods. This country that can subsidize biofuel and chemicals should instead subsidize the return of small farmers to the land. This would solve much of the unemployment problem too.."
As she says, the tragedy is that unless we bring local food sovereignty and "food democracy" back into the picture, there can be no solutions to global hunger and thirst.
April 3 2009 ~ "..something is happening to the food supply.." Chapter One "Feeding Britain"
Feeding Britain, a report by the Smith Institute think-tank, highlights "distinct opportunities" to increase production in the next 20 to 30 years Extracts:
"....we can no longer take food for granted....the strong challenge of "food miles" alone should encourage more local production,
.... there is still potential to increase food output within current technical
constraints and scientific knowledge.....the challenges we face do require
radical action. ..., dysfunction in the global food system can erode UK food
security. Many analysts are predicting that food commodity prices will not return to
the lows of the early 2000s.
Contingent risks to food supply remain, examples being accidental or deliberate food
contamination and disruption to logistics infrastructure. Lean distribution systems and
shifts in consumption patterns (such as towards chilled foods) may make consumers
more vulnerable to interruptions in supply of food and energy.
As elsewhere in the EU, much of the UK farming sector is still heavily dependent on
public subsidy and there are sectors (such as beef and sheep farming) where even on
present terms many producers struggle to make a profit. There is further to go in
strengthening supply chains, connecting farmers to consumers, raising productivity
and finding sustainable business models... Issues include loss of biodiversity,
loss of soil productivity, increasing water scarcity in some regions, water pollution,
solid waste, over-fishing and the external costs of pollution from food distribution.
The meat and dairy supply chains face particular challenges."
April 3 2009 ~ As for the Smith Institute think-tank's view of cost sharing and a new Animal Health body - this approach is termed "disjointed,
distorted and discriminatory"- (page 74):
"...Other threats come from the UK government's intention to create a new non-ministerial
department responsible for animal health policy and delivery in England... The secretary of state is proposing to pass responsibility for animal
health in England to an appointed board. This will make the decision process more
complex and administratively burdensome, but still based on the same science and
within the same constraints now imposed by the EU legislative framework. There will be
pressure for the costs involved to be passed on to England's livestock keepers through the
levies presently envisaged to pay for exotic disease outbreaks. This approach is disjointed,
distorted and discriminatory."
March 30 2009 ~ "Food security is as big an issue as any other form of security - financial, military, social and more"
Horticulture Week blog "... Just ask Japanese farmers - where 70% of them are now over 60 years old and only provide 39% of the country's food needs. Their dissatisfaction with their Government's decisions which have consistently undermined rural areas - for decades - now has the potential to bring the main political party down..
.. there needs to be a concerted effort to change the image of the farmer in the UK...In the US..people in cities will fight on behalf of the farmer - even when the 'farmer' is actually a multi-national - because the farming community has, for so many years, successfully portrayed itself with a human face. More, it is seen as a stoic, dedicated group that take on nature and all its vagaries ..." (Read in full)
March 30 2009 ~ 800 traditional but outlawed vegetable varieties now available from the Heritage Seed Library
As many of us are gloomily aware, three corporations only, (DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta), now control more than a quarter of the world's seed markets. In the past 100 years, 90 percent of UK's vegetable varieties have been lost, with the same happening elsewhere.
In order to "protect customers" the EU insisted that seed varieties be properly "tested" and "approved" before being allowed to be bought or sold - and consequently banned those not tested - amounting to hundreds of traditional varieties.
Now, however, the UK Heritage Seed Library which conserves over 800 varieties threatened from extinction, is making seedlings available from its Warwickshire site from Sunday 5 April 2009.
We read that in tests done by Garden Organic,
"older heritage varieties outperformed their newer counterparts at withstanding poor weather conditions, disease and the scrutiny of taste tests."
March 27 2009 ~ Energy prices affect everything - including food supply
The New York Times today quotes a spokesman from the IMF who says of oil, " today's low prices could be setting the stage for another price run-up in the future." (see oil page) The global crisis makes actions such as "quantitative easing" look as weasly as the words themselves. President Obama spoke in advance of the G20 of "restoring the sustained growth that can only come from open and stable markets that harness innovation, support entrepreneurship and advance opportunity." Perhaps. But Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, recently wrote that it was the "growth binge" that led us into such a mess in the first place,
"...... We are all going to have to share the bitter fruits of our society's century-long growth binge.... The only silver lining is the possibility that now, at last, as the trends (Peak Oil, the failure of growth-based economics, the failure of industrial agriculture, climate chaos, and so on) are becoming so starkly clear, policy makers will begin seriously to contemplate a Plan B...."
March 27 2009 ~ Plan B is already being implemented by down to earth opinion
The prescient professor, Tim Lang, spoke last May of
"...fundamental problems about oil dependency, water shortages looming, growth of population, changes of diet, all the things that are beginning to emerge on the international scene..."
adding that the UK really does need
"to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables"
The far-sighted action of the Transition Town movement involves ordinary people at grass roots level and has immediate and comprehensible appeal - while initiatives such as LandShare aim to help everyone to help themselves.
March 20 2009 ~ "a four-way win for food sovereignty"
Food sovereignty and food security are ideas that are looking ever more urgent (see Prof Beddington's warning below) and, as www.alternatives.ca saysin a fascinating article, Brazil's fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, has developed "dozens of innovations in food security", in particular by finding connections between the interests of farmers and consumers.
".... It raises the incomes of small farmers close to the city, thereby achieving a major anti-poverty objective that helps more people buy the food they need. Secondly, it helps small, local farmers stay on their land instead of migrating to the overcrowded city where unemployment and poverty are rife. Thirdly, it increases the availability of fresh and health-promoting foods for all, since large farms in Brazil are typically dedicated to exports of sugar and oilseeds, not fruits and vegetables for local consumers. Fourth, by increasing the supply of produce, the price is kept stable..."
" It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce - which often reached 100 percent - to consumers and the farmers. Farmers' profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food..."
As these programs were getting underway, farmers in the rest of Brazil were watching their incomes drop by almost half. The city's initiatives also include large community and school gardens. The federal government contributes toward school lunches - but where this was once spent on processed, corporate food, the food now comes fresh and mostly from local growers.
14 March 2009 ~
Despite the recession, farmers' markets recorded a growth of 18.6 per cent last year according to the Soil Association,..
.. highlighting the importance of provenance over price.
As consumers prefer locally sourced products - and look to avoid premium costs - research agency Admap estimates that by 2020, 30 per cent of food products will carry the labels of independent producers, rather than global brands." Telegraph
25th February 2009 ~ "The threat to global sustainable food security requires action"
The meeting referred to in a BBSRC media release last week on the subject of food security has taken place. Jack Davies in the Farmers Guardian reports: ".... scientists said they will look at how crop yields can be increased and how science can help deliver improvements in animal health and productivity.
Dr Helen Ferrier, chief adviser at the NFU is quoted:
"It is now widely acknowledged that there is an impending crisis in the security of food supplies globally. We commend BBSRC for convening this meeting. By ensuring that the UK has strong food and agricultural research base we can ensure that the country has a secure and high quality food supply in the future."
The BBSRC will now develop a roadmap for scientific research which will be put out for public consultation in the spring. Read in full
February 21 2009 ~ "The point has been reached where the threat to global sustainable food security requires action."
A meeting on Thursday (19 February) in Central London, convened and led by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) brought together "leading scientists, policymakers and funders with farmers, food manufactures and retailers" As the BBRSC release says, "With an inexorably growing population, with global harvests threatened by climate change, the very real threat of exotic and endemic animal disease and with a global economic downturn disrupting the flow of trade, the world faces a growing food security crisis."
The meeting intended to "produce a set of priorities to address in order to deliver sustainable food security."
February 16 ~ "... a host of vegetable plots, allotments and smallholdings ....could make up for the loss of industrial-scale farms."
Former BBC wildlife film-maker, Rebecca Hosking, now responsible full-time for her family's farm, has decided to make
"one last BBC documentary" - and the result, A Farm For The Future will be shown this week.
When so many questions are being asked about a future without oil and synthetic fertilisers, it will investigate the answers that are in nature. "As Charles Darwin pointed out, earthworms have been ploughing and aerating the soil for millions of years. And as for fertilisers, just look at how a forest flourishes: by using the natural fertility created by billions of living microbes, fungi, plants and animals."
( See www.dailymail.co.uk)
"... last year's fuel crisis, with oil prices continually rising, was a wake-up call for me.
Fertilizers have become more and more relied upon as the land surface has been damaged. Birds no longer follow the plough because the action of powerful modern tractors has deprived the soil of life. Permaculture too holds great promise, with the potential of returning fertility has returned to the land and sustaining biodiversity.
"Could permaculture feed Britain?"
she asked Britain's leading expert in permaculture.
'Good question,' he said. 'A better question would be, "Can present methods go on feeding Britain?"
Only 150,000 farmers - average age 60 - are left and policy makers fail to see what is coming. Her film will suggest the need for a lot more growers. Some reports estimate it's going to take as many as 12 million growers - but we already have 11 million gardeners - and the idea of growing food is becoming more and more popular. "A Farm For The Future" will be screened on BBC2 at 8pm on Friday and repeated on Sunday, February 22. Read full article She mentions the government's response to the excellent Chatham House report (see below) with all its warnings for the future, and like us, feels astonishment that the DEFRA spokesman insisted that the UK 'enjoys a high level of food security'
February 4 2009 ~ "The UK can no longer afford to take its food supply for granted" - Chatham House
The report from Chatham House, Food Futures: Rethinking UK Food Strategy (Download paper (pdf) ) pinpoints seven fundamental factors that will put the global food system under pressure in the next years: "population growth, the nutrition transition, energy, land, water, labour and climate change". They say that the combined effects of these will create constraints on food supply and
" if action is not taken, there is a real potential for demand growth to outstrip increases in global food production"
Our expectations that food can be abundant and ever cheaper are now very much in question.
"As issues such as energy
security, food security and political security become
inexorably intertwined, the stakes are raised, as is the
price of failure..."
The Chatham House report "highlights the
likely limitations of current policy frameworks and governance
models in the light of the potential changes it identifies.
In its conclusions and recommendations, the
research team assesses the nature of food demand and
supply in the future."Read paper in full (pdf 52 pages)
January 31 2009 ~ "...we can all help develop and support more sustainable, local alternatives to the corporately controlled, global system of food and farming"
"The food isn't cheap: We're just not paying for it" Very short but impressive clip on You Tube of Professor John Ikerd (University of Missouri) discussing the social and environmental costs associated with our industrialized food system. Professor Ikard, now retired but still at Missouri, has written and lectured extensively on the importance of family farms and how to make them effective.
He is deeply concerned that:
"...the agro-industrial establishment continues to defend current farm programs as being necessary for national food security. On the contrary, current farm programs, with their industrial agricultural bias, are helping to bring agriculture under the contractual control of a handful of multinational food corporations. These corporations are not people; they have no family, no community, and increasingly, no nationality. Their primary responsibility is to their global stockholders....these food corporations will produce agricultural commodities wherever in the world they can produce at the lowest cost." (New Farm Policy)
As he says, a nation's only real food security is in the natural productivity of its farmland, "and in farmers who are committed to caring for that land for the benefit of themselves and others ..." Click to link to 2009 papers and previous articles)
January 23 2009 ~ JCB chairman and farmer, Sir Anthony Bamford, wants self-sufficiency in food to be made a priority and deplores "DEFRA's indifference" to rural affairs
Sir Anthony, (the 34th richest man in the UK according to the Sunday Times), is deeply concerned that the UK and DEFRA allows "billions of unnecessary "food miles" to clock up "as we import indigenous foods such as potatoes, apples and sugar, causing congestion, road infrastructure costs, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions." His letter in the Financial Times pulls no punches, saying that since the Ministry of Agriculture became DEFRA, "a strong support of farming has shifted to a woolly focus on rural affairs, and their lack of interest in food self-sufficiency is further evidence." His letter concludes that the UK should make "100 per cent indigenous food self-sufficiency a priority".
November 23 2008 ~ Food security - "in this scramble for soil I don't see any place for the small farmers"
Yesterday's Guardian article by its diplomatic editor , Julian Borger,
about the quiet buying-up by governments and corporations of the rights to millions of hectares of agricultural land in other countries, provides yet another wake-up call about food security. Huge international land deals are already taking place in which small farmers in developing and other countries who cannot prove title are likely simply to be turfed off their land. The article says that details of land deals have been "kept secret so it is unknown whether they have built-in safeguards for local populations."
China's massive industrialisation has led to soil erosion on a very worrying scale. Reuters on Friday reported:
"Each year some 4.5 billion tonnes of soil are lost.... around 1.6 million square km of land are still being degraded by water erosion, with almost every river basin affected. Another 2.0 million square km are under attack from wind.."
China has now begun to explore ways to take over farm land in south-east Asia.
November 16 2008 ~
"only a total revolution in the nation's food industry can save Britain from serious shortages of staples"
It is cheering to see an article today in the Observer quoting the impressive Professor Tim Lang (see what he was saying last May):
"We face some awesome changes in the way we deal with food production. For the past century we have relied on oil to produce more and more food for ourselves - mainly through the use of petroleum products to make cheap fertilisers.."
The article warns that the UK "needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables. Tim Lang says,
"This country produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats. That has to change. We need to consider orchard planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables"
The article says that livestock farming should be happening mostly on the hills - ironic, in view of the way hill farming has been systematically threatened in the past years - and it looks fearlessly at the need to change the use of the countryside so that productive land is protected from development. Read article and see also warmwell page on food security
November 14 2008 ~ "sleepwalking" into an energy crisis.
The Straits Times reports today that IEA executive director, Nobuo Tanaka, has told a news conference in Tokyo:
" If we don't invest (in energy), this problem will only worsen. Unless we develop new oil fields, we will be unable to maintain supply and demand. The era of cheap oil has ended."
".... .....when the dollar starts falling again - as it will - oil will crank back up.
The recent dip in crude prices is a temporary downswing in a much longer-term trend. That trend most definitely points up, a reality we ignore at our peril."
As for gas, the FT yesterday reported that Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, is warning that Europe risks "sleepwalking" into an energy crisis. The EU's answer is a plan to reduce the EU's reliance on Russia by forming a new company to bring gas from central Asia to Europe via the Caspian Sea. The credit crunch has resulted in even perishable goods getting stuck at ports because, in the uncertainty, letters of credit are being withheld. (see below) Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organisation, has given warning that the credit crunch is affecting global trade and the refusal of banks to offer letters of credit has resulted in very few fresh cargoes reaching the market. DEFRA's series of "expert workshops and stakeholder events" to "inform a more detailed statement of our food security policy, that we intend to publish later in the year", aim to
discuss whether the UK food supply chain is "sufficiently resilient to withstand short term shocks and sufficiently robust to face long term challenges." The relevant DEFRA page is http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodrin/policy/security.htm
November 14 ~ put growers and owners of unused land in touch with each other
In view of what we foresee as an ever more serious energy crisis and accompanying reduction in imported cheap food, we mention again grass roots initiatives such as River Cottage's, Landshare, a nationwide scheme aiming to put growers and owners of unused land in touch with each other.
- and the Transition Towns movement which continues, thanks to the common sense of ordinary people, to gather momentum.
November 4 2008 ~ Defra was asked what assessment has been made "of the impact of the current economic situation on national and international food transportation and distribution systems"
Unfortunately, in reply to this timely and urgent question from Peter Ainsworth, Jane Kennedy answered with a (surely rather unnecessary) definition of "food security" and referred to the discussion paper Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World published on July 17. The relevant DEFRA webpage,(in its extraordinary version of the English language), says:
"The views we receive on this discussion document and from a series of expert workshops and stakeholder events that we plan to hold will inform a more detailed statement of our food security policy, that we intend to publish later in the year. This will help start the process of engagement on a key issue identified in Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century...."
The Strategy Unit's analytical report in July (www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/food_policy.aspx ) did indeed attempt to assess "the robustness of the current policy framework for food" but although the Executive Summary's paragraph 16 extols the visual appeal of farmland and its usefulness to maintaining habitats, the vital importance of the UK's ability to produce enough food for itself is nowhere emphasised.
November 4 2008 ~ Landshare to the rescue
"... the UK is well
placed to access the food it needs from
world markets, where required..." said the Strategy Unit's analytical report, dismissively advising against "an isolationist attitude
to national food security". However, the melamine scandal in China has heightened concern over the safety of food imports and we have seen some markets unable to continue to export to the UK. The FT recently said that "the recreation of Soviet-style state trading will aggravate anxieties of food-importing countries about their dependence on the international market" As for China, its exports of key grains such as corn and rice are shrinking fast because of growing demand at home. The real impact on our own farming of high fuel, feed and fertiliser costs poses a danger to our food security - as does the government's apparent lack of concern at the state of farming. In contrast, Jamaica is a good example of one country far more aware of current challenges (www.jis.gov.jm/agriculture/html/). Low interest loans for dairy farmers are helping boost local production, the Jamaican Ministry is able to provide advanced technical information to farmers, and is promoting backyard and school garden programmes, in keeping with FAO initiatives to boost food production. Leaving the UK government's papers, reports and consultations aside for a moment, it is cheering that at the grass roots level, Landshare (a River Cottage initiative) is a NATIONWIDE scheme aiming to put growers and owners of unused land in touch with each other to make British land more productive and fresh local produce more accessible to all. One may register an interest on this page.
October 8 ~Dawn of realisation?
The Telegraph reports on the "First council since Second World War set up to look at food security "
"The production, supply and consumption of food in Britain is to be investigated by a dedicated Government council.
The Council of Food Policy Advisors will sit alongside the National Economic Council set up last week to address the financial crisis.
Hilary Benn... said "With rising prices and increasing demand across the globe, we can't take our food supply for granted. Our food supply needs to be reliable and resilient and able to withstand shocks and crises. Our food supplies must remain secure, and we must have a strong, thriving, environmentally sustainable farming industry in this country that continues to produce a significant proportion of our food...."
.... Professor Tim Lang, said recently that Britons should be growing more of their own food in order to counter the impending food crisis. His comments were compared to the Dig For Britain campaign encouraging more people to grow their own vegetables during the war years."
September 7 2008 ~ "Eating less meat would help, there's no question about that, but there are other things"
Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is quoted in the Observer article today about the advisability of a reduction in meat eating generally: He says government could help educate people about the benefits of eating less meat, but it should not 'regulate'. "Eating less meat would help, there's no question about that, but there are other things".
It was Professor Bob Watson, a scientist we have come to respect, who said, of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD) report that "continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet."
The IAASTD report's key questions include how to enhance production of more nutritious food in a way that has
"no adverse consequences for the environment - indeed positive consequences and in a way that really helps the poorest of the poor. ..Some trade policies of today certainly help some people but don't help the poorest of the poor.." Professor Watson can be seen on YouTube, talking with great seriousness about social exclusion and about the seriousness of environmental degradation.
August 30th 2008 ~ "...placing an intolerable burden on future generations"
The UK has become less and less self-sufficient. Now that Russia is banning many imports of meat and looks set to create a state grain trading company to control up to half of its exports (Reuters,) people are seeing oth food and energy in terms of political leverage. As for China, its exports of key grains such as corn and rice are shrinking fast because of growing demand at home. Beijing has to feed its 1.3 billion people against shrinking arable land and water shortage. Motley Fool today spells out the financial peril in the UK:
"...Just like the US, the UK continues to build up a sizeable annual budget deficit. Indeed, government spending is expected to exceed tax revenues by perhaps £50 billion in the 2008/09 financial year. In addition, thanks to the steady decline of British manufacturing, we now import far more goods than we export.....we are hooked on cheap imported goods.....according to money education charity Credit Action, our debt burden increased by around £98 billion in the past twelve months, or almost £1 million every five minutes. Today, our debt mountain is costing British borrowers nearly £95 billion a year in interest alone, or over £300 per household per month...."
We may be facing very grim times ahead. It seems more and more urgent that discussion about food security includes a realisation of the vitally needed input of UK farmers. Yet they are quitting farming in droves because of being undervalued by supermarkets, harrassed by government bureaucracy and harried by out of date EU regulations. Watch the trailer of IOUSA on YouTube
August 13 2008 ~ relying on multi-nationals to mass-produce GM food would drive millions of farmers off their land and lead to "absolute disaster" - says Prince Charles
Prince Charles speaks of the damage being "wreaked on the earth's soil by scientists' research" and warns that huge multi-national corporations involved in developing genetically modified foods are conducting a "gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity - which has gone seriously wrong". There is a audio link on the page in which we hear him warning that it could all end in "absolute disaster".
What should be being debated was "food security not food production", he says. Telegraph article. Food Security was indeed debated in Parliament on June 30th this year - but there were many voices dutifully claiming that GM can solve the world's hunger. It was rather alarming to hear statements such as, "Whether people want to grow those crops is up to them, as is whether they think there is a market for such production..." as if there really were some kind of democratic choice involved. Food security in all its aspects has become a most urgent issue for Britain as well as for the rest of the world and it is cheering to see what genuine and powerful concern Prince Charles shows for the planet and for those who have no such voice to raise in eloquent protest.
July 19 2008 ~ "Why does it only get worse? After BSE, FMD, Bluetongue I always thought : that's it, we've hit the bottom now. Beggars belief, it seems there is no end in sight."
One much respected and successful commercial farmer, referring to the TB crisis among other things, wrote today:
"It all boils down to movements of animals on a wide scale. I feel the trade with animals, others than pedigree for breeding, should be prohibited as soon as possible. Moving them around in your own country is dangerous enough but sending them abroad is causing havoc and misery, for the animals and farmers."
Not everyone would agree of course. Yet importing food carries problems - and, in the other direction, the one case of the exported calves to the Netherlands and its fallout, is enough on its own to suggest that moving food animals on a massive scale can create far reaching economic problems. Then there are the rogue traders who care nothing for animal welfare and who ignore the extreme bureaucracy designed to make trade safe. Movements of animals by ignorant, greedy or cruel traders can cause animal misery and disease wherever they occur. Adequate checks are very hard to carry out. The present food crisis is beginning to make those not in denial realise that the present system of dependence on global trade is going to have to change fast. Food security in all its aspects has become a most urgent issue for Britain as well as for the rest of the world.
Tuesday 15th July 2008 ~ "A shift from an industrialised agriculture system to one based on ecologically sound
principles and free from petro-chemical inputs..."
The House of Commons
All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil has published its first report. See peak oil pages. Building on the advice of experts in international development its findings are as relevant to the affluent West as to the 'developing' world. It quotes a recent UNESCO statement:
"The status quo is no longer an option. We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil
fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as
crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers"
and agrees that ".... The food crisis is set to deepen if modern agriculture
remains reliant on fossil fuels..." The page 16 section on Resilient food production
advocates "independence from external suppliers of seeds, fertiliser, pesticides and water, .... builds resilience and stronger local economies, health and wellbeing." Interestingly it appears to concur with the view that
'External Input' agricultural models of
Green Revolution and genetic engineering technologies fare poorly compared with 'Internal
Input' ecological agriculture, where productivity is based upon biodiversity and full and
efficient utilisation of biological resources.."
The report is a timely acknowledgement that after the end of cheap oil and gas, business as usual is not an option. Nor can GM technology (see below) ever replace time honoured ways of working with nature.
Monday July 14 2008 ~ " for decades, food has been a convoluted tangle of restrictive rules, in the form of tariffs, quotas and subsidies.." NYT
On June 30, the New York Times reported that "at least 29 countries have sharply curbed or completely cut-off grain exports ..."
Such export restrictions may help the town dwellers in poor exporting countries to have access to grain - but they will further harm their own farmers - still suffering from the effect of global policies since the 1980s when the World Bank and IMF, to reduce budget deficits, insisted on the lowering of tariffs and the ending of farm support programs. Now, ".... the world is increasingly dependent on a handful of countries like Thailand, Brazil, Canada and the United States that are still exporting large quantities of food." The NYT article poses a question that all importing countries need to ask:
" Is it best to specialize in whatever food grows best in a country's soil, and trade it for all other food needs - or even, perhaps, specialize in services or manufacturing, and trade those for food?
Or is it best to seek self-sufficiency in every type of food that will, weather permitting, grow within a country's borders?"
Since the end of cheap energy means that the UK's huge services sector is not going to be able to pay "for all other food needs" the notion that the UK can be in a post agricultural era is indeed dangerous. . Yet excessive red tape and unfair miseries continue (double tagging and the huge losses from bTB are only two examples). Government has never been in such need of listening to and learning from its solid base of decent farmers and veterinary experts rather than its fly-by-night economists - on the subject of which, Simon Jenkins had much to say last week.
July 12 2008 ~ "community-supported farms helping to reverse a steep decline in local people's connection with the land"
Community-supported agriculture is expanding across the United States says today's Telegraph In New York City alone, there are 62 such schemes, including 23 vegetable farmers and up to 30 other meat, dairy and egg suppliers. Together, they provide food for 6,500 members who pay an average 17dollars a week for vegetables, which are delivered to various collecting points around the city.
"......A "share" in an organic farm's harvest costs on average between $500 (£250) and $800 (£400) a season and guarantees weekly delivery of a box of fresh, seasonal vegetables. ..... small organic farmers who might otherwise struggle to make ends meet have benefited from the guaranteed income, often buying more land with subscribers' money.."
Reconnecting people with the land, lessening a perceived deep gulf between town and country and helping people to understand where food really comes from can only do good. Far from being the 'fat cat farmers always complaining' -as portrayed by some political propaganda - many people working on the land have every reason to feel enormous and growing anxiety. Yet they are the custodians of vital skills in danger of being lost forever. We need urgently to value and protect our family farms.
July 12 ~ Rich enough to import sufficient food? For how long?
Suzanne Greenhill says in her Telegraph letter today:
".... We are currently importing 40 per cent of our food and this is set to increase as more farmers quit."
She adds that if the annual numbers continue at the present rate there will be no farmers left at all in Britain. "The EU and our Government are still stuck in the policy era of beef and butter mountains, and telling us we are rich enough to import sufficient food. We are continuing to pay farmers to remove livestock and act as park wardens rather than be allowed to produce food. What a disastrous waste.
Gordon Brown needs to look in his own back yard and stop lecturing the public on food waste..."
July 12 2008 ~ bTB exported from UK?
While many dairy farms are on the brink of collapse because of bTB, - the Dutch Ministery must have been appalled to find itself warned by DEFRA after it was discovered - after the calves had been exported to the Netherlands - that the British farm from which they came was infected. So far, as a result, 27 Dutch farms have been hit with restrictions or 'have been locked' as the Dutch like to call it - and Holland has been free of bovine TB since 1994 .
An Agrarisch Dagblad article (in Dutch) quotes Kim Heywood, director of the NBA
" We' re so sorry .... all calves from the previous two months are traced so that they can be tested. .as has happened with these animals which have gone to the Netherlands.".... The NBA, like the National Farmers Union, puts the blame for problems at the feet of the government. "Stock breeders do everything to keep this disease under control, but the government refuses to cooperate by dealing with (the wildlife source). .."
10 July ~ "There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current food price increase. ."
If there really exists - as some genuinely fear - an ambition among the biotech giants to control across the globe the seed trade and ultimately food production itself, the present food crisis provides the ideal opportunity to drown out opposing voices. But there is evidence of what can happen when small farmers change over from their traditional farming to the use of GMO seeds. According to www.countercurrents.org what follows "... is a horror story of bad harvests, huge debts, increased costs for herbicides and fertilizers (in spite of the companies' promises of lower costs), and the suicides of thousands of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala - among the Indian states that are hit the worst." Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU GMO campaign director said last month that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current food price increase and any claim that a single technology such as genetic engineering is a silver bullet for our future food supply distracts attention from the real solutions.
"Farming methods that ensure higher yields, that are more climate resilient, which do not destroy natural resources and can provide better livelihoods for farmers around the world are the only way forward."
What must also not be forgotten is the possibility of the unwanted transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on the soil - and a possibly disastrous loss of biodiversity. (See also February posting.
July 9 ~ " a Government who seem obsessed
with regulation and centralisation.."
is no reason why we cannot produce enough to meet the significant majority of
our needs. We have some of the best land in the world and some of the most
technically advanced farmers, but we also have a Government who seem obsessed
with regulation and centralisation, and who therefore hinder rather than help
those who want to get on with their business."
David Parker of the Western Daily Press: " The Royal Show...at Stoneleigh seems to have lost its lustre. ..
It did more for farming and trade, education and training, without taxpayers' support, than the Government could possibly contemplate. Its loss would affect everyone who eats, as well as those in the agriculture industry worldwide...." He reports that "producers don't trust Defra as a friend of farming because of a surfeit of bureaucratic red tape and its failure on TB controls, and the recent confusion over foot-and-mouth.. .."
July 9 2008 ~
"Soaring oil and food prices pose a "serious challenge" to stable worldwide economic growth..." AFP
The Group of Eight (G8) leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been televised planting their trees and waving to "supporters". One wonders how many viewers feel relief that so much political power rests in their hands. Those without televisions and already starving may not care too much about "worldwide economic growth". As far as the UK and its self-sufficiency goes, one can only agree with the NFU (See Fwi) in its reaction to the Food Matters report from the Cabinet Office in whose Strategy for the 21st Century - although Executive Summary paragraph 16 extols the visual appeal of farmland and its usefulness to maintaining habitats - fails to emphasise the vital importance of food production.
"Farming helps to maintain the much-loved
appearance and character of the UK
countryside and its place in the national
self-identity. Grassland and other habitats
supported by farming sustain valued
ecosystems and the species within them."
Its worry about "greenhouse gas emissions" immediately follows this paragraph and one sees no "strategy" in the paper to encourage the belief
that UK farming and local food production are to be given a new and urgent consideration by this government.
July 7 ~ The price of phosphorus has skyrocketed in the last 12 months - and phosphorus is only available from a few areas - none of which is in Europe.
According to www.delawareonline.com last month: "... the price of phosphorus trichloride, an important industrial chemical, has already tripled this year. ... electricity rationing and export taxes imposed by China have driven up the cost of phosphorus from China."
Producing biofuel through corn production requires twice the amount of phosphorus as soyabeans, wheat and some other crops. As more fields are being used for corn to supply biofuel, more phosphorus is being channeled into higher margin fertilizers, rather than being used for feed. In addition, sulphur, processed into sulphuric acid, is a by-product of the oil and gas industries - which are now also in decline. Yet another reason - if more were required - for the UK to think local, think self-sufficiency and to think sustainable.
July 7 ~ The end of cheap non-organic fertilisers - another warning sign
Unlike non-organic fertilisers, animal or green manures and compost traditionally added to the soil fostered the existence of the microbes who help plants to absorb nutrients. It allowed earthworms to aerate the soil. Now, the universal non-organic fertilizer combining Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium ( 'Growmore' for example) is becoming more and more expensive. Its components come from non-renewable sources and the manufacturing processes are energy intensive. Its use does not add humus to the soil - and when the soil structure collapses agriculture collapses too.
Over-use of chemical fertilisers can cause damage when excess nitrogen and phosphorus gets into streams and rivers - increasing algae growth that can use up the available oxygen in the water, killing the fish and destroying the eco-system. As Simon Jenkins said in May, "the market has delivered in months what the Treasury failed to force on us, a better husbanding of scarce resources"
July 7 ~ What role should wave energy have in the Government's renewable energy strategy? Should they be a higher priority?
In January 2001, this memorandum submitted by the Open University Energy and Environment Research Unit to the HoC Select Committee on Science and Technology (now ominously renamed Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee) reported that
"Wave power devices might ultimately supply up to 20 per cent of UK electricity with minimal environmental impacts. Given the UK's maritime history and its extensive offshore engineering experience coupled with the major energy resource offshore, it would be perverse to ignore this option."
Alas, the UK Wave Energy program had been shut down on March 19, 1982, in a closed meeting, "the details of which remain secret." (www.oilgae.com) Yet the brilliant "Salter Duck", never used, continues to be the machine against which all others are measured. "An analysis of Salter's Duck resulted in a miscalculation of the estimated cost of energy production by a factor of 10, an error which was only recently identified. Some wave power advocates believe that this error, combined with a general lack of enthusiasm for renewable energy in the 1980s (after oil prices fell), hindered the advancement of wave power technology." Instead, we got the white elephant of wind turbines rampaging and trumpeting uselessly across the most beautiful parts of the country crushing anyone who dared to raise their voice against them. See updated windfarm pages
Monday July 7 2008 ~ British food not biofuel
On the day that a second report by the Cabinet Office strategy unit launches a debate over how Britain can use its land more effectively to produce more food and reveals that 4.1 million tons of food are dumped each year in the UK, the Gallagher Report will cause the government to reconsider the targets set in April in Britain (see below) These required all petrol and diesel to contain 2.5 per cent of biofuels - and by proposing to increase this to 5 per cent by 2010 sent growers the signal that increased production away from food would be profitable since demand for biofuel would inevitably grow. As we see below, the EU's volte face will be very quickly effected. Professor Gallagher's report to be published today says that biofuel from non-food crops may be sustainable but concludes that production from food crops is not: the risks are too great to impose higher targets.
The Independent quotes Oxfam:
"As we divert more and more rapeseed crop into fuel, European industry is buying increasing supplies of edible oils from overseas including palm oil."
Thursday 3 July 2008 ~ "a worsening global food and energy crisis pushing more of the world's people into poverty and destabilising economies..".
Reuters reports that the World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, in a letter copied to leaders of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Nations,
has asked the Group of Eight industrial nations and major oil producers urgently to address a worsening global food and energy crisis, saying,
"We are entering a danger zone..."
Zoellick says the G8 and international community should consider a global reserve system for food emergencies similar to that of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which coordinates the release of emergency oil reserves by member countries.
Ahead of the G8 summit in Japan on July 7-9, Zoellick said 10 billion US dollars will be needed for emergency food aid and to help countries deal with the double impact of rising food and fuel prices.
He says that urgent steps need to be taken to get seed and fertilisers to poor farmers, especially in Africa, in time for the next planting season. Read Reuters article.
July 2 2008 ~ A sustainable food system must be low energy, water conscious and actively involve as many people as possible.
Dr Ian Gibson, in his persuasive arguments in favour of GM crops in Tuesday's debate, said: ".. high food prices will be
with us for some time to come. The only response is to increase the food supply.. " He meant that genetic modification has the answer. However, on the notion that we can relax and simply now give full rein to GM crops, one warmwell emailer says today,
am not at all convinced that in times of diminishing oil reserves we should
seek to utilise methods so dependent on oil-based products (fertiliser,
He went on to say that in the production of herbicide-resistant varieties, if the seed production and the herbicide production lies in the same commercial organisation it is "a bit like having an election with only
Since intensive farming equipment is so dependent on fossil fuel for its machinery, transport and non-organic fertilisers, let us instead learn to cultivate our gardens in the most biodiverse way we can, and encourage as fast and as widely spread as possible the human scale gardening and farming that isn't dependent on oil. The methods so happily embraced by UK smallholders, by the Transition movement and other far-sighted ones should now be a source of inspiration to all.
July 1 2008 ~ "...we have a Government who seem obsessed with regulation and centralisation, and who therefore hinder rather than help ...."
There have been on this website several urgent paragraphs in recent weeks about food security and the need for self-sufficiency in what could well be a far more than a temporary crisis. The Food Security debate in the House of Commons yesterday
began with a tour de force from James Paice, who clearly understands the present dangers. On the government's apparent contempt for UK farming:
"In December 2005, a joint policy document... called “A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy” made the astonishing statement that
“domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security”.
....Are the Government really suggesting that it does not matter whether there is any domestic production at all?.."
Mr Paice told the House that in the past six weeks he has openly challenged both Hilary Benn and Gordon Brown to disown that document. Neither of them has done so. "It is true that both have made noises about the importance of British farming, but, as I shall show, they have done nothing of significance..." He feels ,".... there is no reason why we cannot produce enough to meet the significant majority of our needs. We have some of the best land in the world and some of the most technically advanced farmers, but we also have a Government who seem obsessed with regulation and centralisation, and who therefore hinder rather than help those who want to get on with their business."
His speeches, as well as many of the others, are worth reading in full since a great number of vitally important farming issues were mentioned yesterday, including GM, the CAP, milk prices, cost sharing, biofuels, labelling as well as animal welfare and disease policies. On regulations and gold-plating, Mr Paice said, "Unless there is a clear benefit to be gained from a regulation, it is pointless. I question considerably the need for them..." Mr Benn tried hard with all this but did not seem to show the grasp demonstrated by many others.
July 1 ~ "...... a practical and moral imperative that Great Britain retains the capacity to produce a significant proportion of its own food.."
James Paice's opening statement is worth quoting in full
"That this House notes with concern current food shortages which are believed to have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide; recognises that rising food prices are putting household budgets under increasing strain; believes that with rising global demand and pressure on supply it is both a practical and moral imperative that Great Britain retains the capacity to produce a significant proportion of its own food; notes that UK self-sufficiency in food has declined considerably over the last decade; regrets the Government's failure to accept that domestic production is a necessary condition for food security; and urges the Government to relieve pressure on world markets and ensure the security of domestic food supply by enabling British farmers to optimise food production while preserving the natural environment.
." Read the debate
June 20 2008 ~ "Europe is heavily dependent on imports as it does not have enough land to both farm animals and grow the feed they need."
In an article revealing that the Environment minister has held private talks with the biotechnology industry about relaxing Britain's policy on the use of GM crops, Andrew Grice, the
Independent's Political Editor in Brussels tells us
At a two-day summit in Brussels which began last night, EU leaders were urged to "bite the bullet" and embrace GM products as a solution to rocketing food prices. .... Europe is heavily dependent on imports as it does not have enough land to both farm animals and grow the feed they need. .."
At the end of the article
Michael McCarthy's Q and A section we discover that it is only in the developing countries that governments and universities are now working on drought-resistant crop strains. The dominant aim of the big commercial companies is different. It is "is to maximise profits rather than to pull the world out of poverty and hunger".
If widely grown in Britain, the present "broad-spectrum" weedkillers used with herbicide-tolerant crops
"would have a devastating effect on farmland wildlife".
June 18 2008 ~ "... a strong domestic agricultural industry" and "we do need to respond to changing circumstances." Hilary Benn
How influential for far too long has been the idea that the world population can be sustained by globalisation, big business and cheap imports. The often heard contention that the UK does not really need farming has been deeply worrying.
However, these answers to PQs on June 12 suggest that there is now a genuine awareness of the crisis we face. Is this allowing those in DEFRA with good sense to get their voices heard at last?
".....effective risk management and contingency planning, security of energy supplies, access to food from a variety of sources and a strong domestic agricultural industry and food chain and infrastructure." Read Mr Benn's parliamentary answers in full
June 18 ~ "The UK is more self-sufficient in food supply now than we were at the end of the Second
was the astonishing claim by Hilary Benn in his answers on 12 Jun 2008. He did at least add, "but we do need to respond to changing circumstances". The Lib Dem, Roger Williams, recently mentioned the Government report on food showing that in temperate or indigenous food products UK self-sufficiency has fallen by about 10 per cent over the past 10 years. Since our reduced agricultural output is "putting more strain on world markets and makes us compete with developing countries for that food" we look forward to Hilary Benn's paper later this month on "ensuring food security". Global food shortages have at long last focused attention on the UK's declining ability to feed itself. The Western Morning News recently reported that James Paice wants the Government to ditch its current policy which states that domestic production is "not a necessary condition for food security..." An
NFU spokesman too made a plea for
"a clear acknowledgment of the value of stepping up food production..."
and one hopes to see in Hilary Benn's paper a new commitment to some serious investment in research and development, accompanied by a genuine attack on red tape. The crisis is a real one. As Hamish McRae says in the Independent, "what I think everyone would be agreed on is that the age of easy oil is past". (see also oil page)
June 16 2008 ~ Paradoxical challenges or tackling the problems?
Few in power seem able to see beyond the present systems that have led to an increasingly grave situation. The oil-powered rush for economic growth brought about a parallel growth of the world's population ( 77 million more of us each year) and a dependency on fossil fuels. Controlling population, examining current mindsets about growth and globalisation - and promoting something approaching self sufficiency again might give us - even at this late stage - a chance to survive without resource wars and the starvation of the most vulnerable. The Transition initiative provides a grass roots starting point for the UK at least.
June 12 ~ "as terrifying a problem as our politicians have ever faced"
article in yesterday's Mail warns of " the real energy crisis far worse than the widespread blackouts which recently - largely unreported - blacked out half-a-million UK homes". Britain is set to lose nearly half its electricity in six years"
"..We are no longer talking just about factories shutting down or lighting our homes with candles. Without computers, our entire economy would grind to a halt.."
While the Government now wants to build a new generation of nuclear power stations
"...with such a worldwide demand for new nuclear power, what chance is there that even EDF could provide enough reactors to meet our needs, when building each new one might take ten years or more? ....
Incredibly, we are 'obliged' by the EU, within 12 years, to generate no less than 38 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources.... we have no hope of achieving even a fraction of that target
As Mr Booker says, the need to avert the worst consequences of sudden power down must be put right at the top of our national political agenda - (and after our daily Cassandra-like outpourings, it is good to see the mainstream press beginning at last to voice the same urgent concerns.)
June 12 ~ "They can't quite say 'peak' in so many words. They don't want to rock the boat."
Most mainstream newspaper articles about the serious consequences of the end of cheap energy do, however, tend to leave the really bad news until far into the article. Today's Independent today on the subject of peak oil is hardly an exception. " it seems hard to believe that the world could really be running low on easy oil..." But as the article proceeds we see that geologists, market analysts and oil prospectors believe that the peak oil scenario is becoming reality. Colin Campbell and Matthew Simmons are no longer regarded as "wacky radicals" and
Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review is quoted:
"You can just about struggle through to 2011, if everything goes to plan - which, of course, it won't - ..."
And here is Colin Campbell on the major oil companies: "They can't quite say 'peak' in so many words. They don't want to rock the boat."
The "most notable peak oil refusnik", says the article, is the International Energy Agency - but even the IEA (as we reported below on May 22) has decided to review how it sources its data on oil reserves.
June 12 2008 ~ "..an inconvenient way to end the world."
The Independent article ends with both optimism and pessimism. Matthew Simmons: "Local farms are now coming back," he says. "We have all the technology in place to do that."
According to Colin Campbell, a wholesale change in the western lifestyle is going to be needed - and soon.
"Cities will face massive challenges," he says. "By the end of the century, when there really isn't very much oil left, the world will be a very different one - much more rural, probably with fewer people. It's a sort of doomsday message, but in some ways, it's just a change from the modern mindset. There are people in the world who live a simple life like that and are very happy."
But if our leaders continue to carry on as if there were no looming crisis "If we don't make changes, we're going to have a resource war and blow ourselves up," says Simmons. "I think that would be a really inconvenient way to end the world...
At some point, some politician has got to come out and state clearly that the world is going to be different...."
June 12 2008 ~ "Though the rich world's governments won't hear it...there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield."
The current Smallholders Online newsletter ( No. 251 which also contains a kind article about this website) links to the Guardian article by George Monbiot that shows how...
"a recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen's observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere... it works even in countries such as Brazil, where the biggest farmers have grabbed the best land..." Read in full
Monbiot says that "..Big business is killing small farming. By extending intellectual property rights over every aspect of production, and by developing plants that either won't breed true or don't reproduce at all, big business ensures that only those with access to capital can cultivate."
The assumption that efficiency can happen only on a large scale is confounded by such articles. Leaving out the human equation - the feeling of ownership, pride in the land and responsibility for it - has led us into a situation where, for the past 30 or 40 years, we have dismantled localised food production. It is going to be a difficult but urgent task to try to reverse this.
June 11 2008 ~ Oil price rise - ominous warnings of things to come
The Independent today, "The chief executive of the world's largest energy company has issued the most dire warning yet about the soaring the price of oil, predicting that it will hit $250 per barrel "in the foreseeable future.... ...the regional government of Catalonia enacted an emergency action plan to bring in fresh food and fuel supplies after nearly half of its forecourts ran dry and supermarkets shelves were left bare. The situation was the result of the second day of an "indefinite" nationwide strike staged by lorry drivers in Spain seeking their government's help to contain the effects of expensive petrol. Scattered protests by drivers and fisherman in France and Portugal also continued yesterday." One result of all this is that Germany cannot vaccinate against bluetongue. See Bluetongue page.
June 10 2008 ~ the nation's best interest in terms of food security and agriculture...
In today's icwales.co.uk we see that Gareth Vaughan, president of the Farmers' Union of Wales, says that
food security must be a top priority in the face of landslide changes in the global economy, and
European and UK politicians should get rid of the outdated concepts that dominate the Common Agricultural Policy and the World Trade Organisation.
Mr Vaughan wondered how the Commission and members of the Council of Agriculture Ministers would react even if the recommendations were adopted by the European Parliament,.
"Unfortunately, the track record of our own Defra ministers on such issues is not good...."
June 10 2008 ~ Defra has just (June 9) launched a consultation on the EC proposals for the "Health Check" of the CAP - discussions began in Brussels nearly three weeks ago
This twelve-week consultation is due to close on 1 September 2008 - but, as Ruud Peyes points out,
" the discussion in Brussels started at the 20th of May.... the UK was not present at all at an important EU ministerial meeting where the first salvos about the Health Check were fired .."
Last week Jim Paice was indeed furious that no one from DEFRA
"bothered to attend a meeting where the future of European agriculture was being determined." Quoted in the WMN he said,
"The UK should be at the forefront of these talks on the CAP, food security, biofuels and environmental protection, not just to promote the interests of British farming, but to ensure that EU policy most effectively responds to the challenges of rising food prices and the increasing strain on our natural resources.
DEFRA seems to have been unmoved:
"Ministers play a full and active role in CAP reform, regularly attending meetings where the issue is discussed," said the spokesman. One wonders how far such regular attendees are also pushing for the removal of "the outdated concepts that dominate the Common Agricultural Policy and the World Trade Organisation".
June 10 2008 ~ Energy. It is not just the scale of the increase, it is the speed with which it is happening.... "cheap and plentiful energy will never return"
In 2003, the UK was a net exporter of gas; now, almost 40 per cent of gas for the UK has to be imported through the pipelines from Belgium and the Netherlands, or from Norway. The price is largely determined by the price of oil, because, as the FT explains, most gas in Europe is sold on long-term contracts at prices linked to oil and oil products. Oil reached more than $139 a barrel for US crude on Monday. The FT article says.
"The rise in wholesale gas prices meant that it was now “inevitable” energy bills would be increased, “barring a massive plunge in oil prices”, said one big energy supplier.
“It is not just the scale of the increase, it is the speed with which it is happening. The whole industry is going to be impacted.”
There is "little hope for relief", says the Independent today "...Energy industry executives have become increasingly vocal about the need for further price rises. They are trying to persuade users around the world to get used to the fact that cheap and plentiful energy will never return."
June 10 2008 ~ Cheap supermarket food was a gift from "cheap and plentiful energy" . What now?
Cassandra's unwelcome predictions are these: We shall soon - with something approaching disbelief at our complacency - be looking back to a time when shoppers took cars, fridges and freezers for granted, happy to pay more for convenience food and for the convenience of supermarket parking. The end of cheap energy means the end of much we assumed would last for ever. Soon everyone will want to be able to shop and work locally. We will want raw materials not products. Powercuts and high energy prices will mean an end to easy commuting, suburban living, gadgets and home appliances - and especially the cheap transport that has fed us and which looks increasingly set to disappear. For how long are the imports upon which the UK has come to depend going to be there? Can people cooperate in using whatever land remains to grow food? A return to the land en masse is going to be vital if we are to come close to feeding the population. But intensive farming has left so few of us with agricultural skills. As the Ecologist pointed out in 2005, it is somewhat harder to start farming organically than it is to follow the instructions on the back of a packet of Monsanto pesticide.
Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents
3 DEFRA'S VISION FOR FOOD
The role of Defra
75. A number of the submissions, particularly from
the retailing and manufacturing sectors, made it clear that it
was the role of Defra to articulate the UK's approach to securing
food supplies in the long term. Waitrose stated that the challenges
for the Government and for Defra began with "the need to
provide better strategic clarity." It commented: "While
the tone of the government's rhetoric has certainly become more
focused on the challenge of food production in the last year [ ]
it is yet to translate into crystal clear leadership in key areas."
Other food retailers also called for greater leadership from Defra.
They focused in particular on Defra's co-ordinating role within
and beyond Government. Sainsbury's stated: "DEFRA needs to
show greater leadership on food and centralise policy within Government."
The Co-operative Group, which in addition to operating food stores
is the largest commercial farmer in the UK, urged Defra to "adopt
a leadership role in closer working with both the Food Standards
Agency, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and external
organisations such as trade bodies, consumer organisations and
the manufacturing sector, the Food and Drink Federation commented
that Defra should provide "strategic leadership and clear
prioritization of sometimes competing policy priorities".
76. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA)
expressed a slightly different point of view. It commented that
there was "still a gross under-estimation in Government about
the scope and role of policy [ ] to address this area."
However, it also stated that "all the major policy levers
affecting food security in this country are decided at EU level".
We refer to the Common Agricultural Policy, the
EU Common External Tariff (i.e. trade policy) and the fact that
nearly all environmental policy affecting land use is based on
EU directives. In addition the, admirably named, budget heading
2 of the EU Budget, entitled the 'Protection and Management of
Natural Resources', provides the principal public financial support
for the policies which shape our food and environmental security.
We discuss the Common Agricultural Policy in chapter
4, but the CLA's comments raise the question of whether the UK
should have its own policy on securing food supplies at all, or
whether it should simply contribute to an EU strategy.
77. There are signs of the EU's increasing interest
in the security of food supplies. In January 2009, the European
Parliament adopted a resolution on The Common Agricultural
Policy and Global Food Security, which described "global
food security" as "a question of the utmost urgency
for the European Union" and called for "immediate and
continual action to ensure food security for EU citizens and at
In May 2009, Franz Fischler, the former EU Agriculture Commissioner,
declared that the EU must increase its food production, because
even a big improvement in agriculture in developing countries
would not be enough to feed the future world population.
However, the growing interest in the security of food supplies
certainly does not mean that everyone in Europe is agreed on a
way forward. Anastassios Haniotis, from the European Commission,
told us: "We [the European Union] have a very diversified
mix of agricultural products and we do not have any issues of
food security in terms of lack of food; we do not have it today
and we do not expect to have it in the future."
It was clear from the rest of his evidence that the Commission
had been examining the issue of the security of food supplies
very carefully, but his remark suggests that the Commission and
the European Parliament may have rather different perspectives
on the urgency of the situation and the extent to which food security
affects Europe directly.
78. While agreeing that some aspects of food policy
were decided at an EU level, Anastassios Hanitotis saw a role
for member states in developing their own food policies:
How exactly the food sector in each Member State
evolves and develops is mainly an issue of national policies or
mixed competence, but when it comes to food safety and when it
comes to trade we do have the framework of a common policy.
As we have already discussed, the majority of the
UK's imports come from EU countries and the Common Agricultural
Policy and EU directives influence the shape of the UK food system.
Defra's approach to the security of food supplies must take
place in the context of the European Union. However, we believe
that there is still scope for Defra to develop its own food policy
and that the clearer this policy and the stronger Defra's leadership,
the more chance the UK has of shaping the direction of any emerging
EU policy on this issue.
79. A recent example of the UK's failure to take
European policy in the direction it wanted is the new EU legislation
on the use of pesticides. The new rules introduce hazard-based,
rather than risk-based, criteria for assessing the safety of pesticides.
According to an impact assessment by the UK Pesticide Safety Directorate,
up to 23% of all sprays could be banned.
The European Commission stated that the new criteria might lead
to the withdrawal of "a limited number of active substances",
but "would not impose serious restrictions on food production
Professor Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser,
commented that banning or reducing the use of pesticides because
they are hazards, rather than doing a proper risk assessment,
was not an evidence-based policy and was an abrogation of scientific
responsibility. He also said that he had found it difficult to
engage in a discussion of the subject with other member states:
"When the pesticide regulation [ ] was starting to be
discussed, Defra were obviously engaged, but there was no equivalent
that I could talk to in member countries to say, 'This looks very
It is beyond the scope of this inquiry to assess the impact
of the new EU pesticides legislation on the security of food supplies.
However, we note with concern that the Government's Chief Scientific
Adviser does not believe that it is an evidence-based policy.
Defra should press for the EU to agree that future changes of
this nature must not be approved by the Council of Ministers or
the European Parliament until a full evidence-based evaluation
of the proposals has been undertaken.
Defra's progress so far
80. It would be easy to assume that Defra has not
done a very good job of providing clarity and leadership on food
policy so far. This is a fair conclusion up to a point. Defra's
2006 report, Food Security and the UK: An Evidence and Analysis
Paper, which we discussed in chapter 2, was followed in July
2008 by a "discussion paper" entitled Ensuring the
UK's Food Security in a Changing World. The world had already
changed quite a lot between 2006 and 2008, and Defra's discussion
paper is different in tone from its earlier report. Published
at the height of the rise in food prices, the paper is less dismissive
of the need to consider UK production than the 2006 report. However,
it gives little sense of an overall change in approach to securing
food supplies. Defra comments that Ensuring the UK's Food Security
is a consultation document and "so it does not have all the
We accept this, but before long Defra will have to start supplying
at least some of the answers.
81. At the same time as Defra published Ensuring
the UK's Food Security, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit published
Food Matters: Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century.
In September 2007, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, commissioned
the Strategy Unit to examine the Government's approach to food
policy. Food Matters summarised the project's conclusions.
It ended with an action plan, which set out which Departments
were responsible for putting its recommendations into practice
and the expected timescale for delivery. Among other responsibilities,
Defra is given the lead for delivering a vision and strategy for
food, with a target completion date of October 2009.
82. Since July 2008, there have been several opportunities
to get some sense of what might be in Defra's vision and strategy
for food. One of these was Hilary Benn's speech at the Oxford
farming conference, in January 2009. He commented:
The best way for the UK to ensure its food security
in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable
British agriculture, and trading freely with other nations. And
just so there is no doubt about this at all, let me say the following.
I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible.
No ifs. No buts. And the only requirements should be, first, that
consumers want what is produced and, second, that the way our
food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our
The emphasis of this statement is subtly but significantly
different from a similar statement in Defra's July 2008 discussion
One of the most important contributions the UK
can make to global, and our own, food security is having a thriving
and productive agriculture sector in the UK, operating in a global
market and responding to what consumers want.
Hilary Benn's comments, with their focus on British
agriculture producing as much food as possible, and on sustainability,
seem to be moving closer to the approach to securing food supplies
that we advocated in chapter 2. However, Professor Lang commented
that, although Hilary Benn's speech was to be welcomed to some
extent, "it was merely a speech; it was not co-ordinated
policy driven by Defra to encourage the big corporate powerhouses,
the supermarkets, the buyers to take the long-term investment
to encourage farmers and growers to plan".
83. The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit's Food Matters
report set out what it considered should be the Government's
future strategic policy objectives for food: "to secure:
fair prices, choice, access to food and food security through
open and competitive markets; continuous improvement in the safety
of food; a further transition to healthier diets; and a more environmentally
sustainable food chain".
Domestic production is not mentioned at all in these policy objectives.
If Defra is going to adopt as policy the approach outlined in
the quote from Hilary Benn's Oxford farming conference speech,
as we believe it should, it must consider modifying these strategic
policy objectives to reflect the importance of UK food production.
84. Defra's task in providing a vision and strategy
for food is complicated by the fact that it needs to act fast,
but also to offer a long-term vision that reaches beyond the short-term
political cycle. Governments, of all political persuasions, want
to be re-elected. The interval between general elections is a
maximum of five years. Securing food supplies is not about implementing
a policy that will last for five years: it is about providing
clear direction for the next 40 or 50 years, and some of the decisions
that have to be taken may not be popular in the short term. As
Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, the President of the CLA, put it: "there
are no votes in long-term work on food and environmental security".
When we put this point to Hilary Benn, he replied: "The more
that we can build a consensus, frankly, about what needs to be
done, the better chance the ebb and flow of the political cycle
will not get in the way of carrying on with it afterwards".
We agree that there needs to be cross-party consensus on the approach
to securing food supplies. Climate change policy provides an example
of what can be achieved in this context. We were pleased to hear
Hilary Benn's assurance that Defra was working with the devolved
Administrations to achieve a "shared view of what a sustainable
and secure food system is going to look like".
85. The vision and strategy for food, for which
Defra was assigned responsibility in the Cabinet Office's Food
Matters report, must provide a long-term framework for the
UK food and farming industries. It should commit the UK to increasing
production of those commodities which are best suited to being
produced here, provided that this can be done in a sustainable
way. Defra must recognise that calling for more domestic food
production is one thing, but it cannot order that this be done.
It must, however, lay out clearly what role it has in helping
the UK food and farming industries to achieve this objective.
The vision and strategy cannot be expected to supply all the answers,
but it must supply clear direction and indicate what further work
is needed and the deadline for its completion. Cross-party consensus
on the vision and strategy is essential.
ASSESSING THE RISKS
86. Melanie Leech, the President of the Food and
Drink Federation, commented:
We are very good as an industry and as a food
chain at managing known risk and short-term interruptions in supply
as they occur. That is because we have invested a lot in being
able to do that. I guess that what keeps a lot of my members awake
at night and is much harder to plan for is the unknown risk. For
some things we just do not know what the scenario will be.
Chatham House stated that one of the roles Defra
could play to help secure a thriving UK food system would be to
"provide a coherent risk management framework through which
the short, medium and long term risks to food security can be
monitored and managed".
Hilary Benn told us that Defra is already undertaking "a
very detailed piece of work looking at all of the potential threats
to food security here in the UK, understanding their nature and
what we can do about them".
He made it clear that this work covered all aspects of the food
supply chain and all sorts of risk, including climate change,
as well as short-term disruptions to the logistics of the supply
chain, such as problems with fuel supply or the closure of ports.
We were told that the results of this work were likely to be published
"around the same time" as the vision and strategy for
foodin autumn 2009.
We welcome the fact that Defra is undertaking a comprehensive
assessment of the risks to the security of the UK's food supplies.
This work should be used as the basis for monitoring and managing
risks, and should be regularly updated. Together with the vision
and strategy for food, it should inform food policy decisions
across all departments. It should also be used as a basis for
contingency planning. The European Commission should undertake
its own assessment of the risks to the security of food supplies
in the EU.
The structure for delivering
87. The past year has seen the creation of several
new groups for developing and delivering food policy. In July
2008, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit's Food Matters report announced
the creation of a Food Strategy Task Force to bring together senior
officials from Defra, the then Department for Business, Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform, the Treasury, the Department of Health,
the Department for International Development, the Department for
Children, Schools and Families, and the Food Standards Agency.
The Task Force is intended to oversee and co-ordinate work on
food issues across Government.The British Retail Consortium (BRC) commented that, although
the Task Force was still in its infancy, the BRC had "yet
to see any positive outcomes" from it.
88. The BRC also mentioned the Cabinet Sub-Committee
on Food. The Sub-Committee, which was established in autumn 2008,
is chaired by Hilary Benn and is composed of the Secretaries of
State from all the main departments whose work touches on food
policy, including Communities and Local Government; Transport;
and Children, Schools and Families. The Secretaries of State for
Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are also members. The Sub-Committee's
terms of reference are: "To consider issues relating to food
and to report as necessary to the Committee on Domestic Affairs".
89. The BRC said of the Task Force and the Sub-Committee:
"We feel these two groups should be capable of improving
the co-ordination and prioritisation of food policy but they would
benefit from input from the sector to identify problems and suggest
how the Government could lend practical support."
When we asked Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Executive Director at Tesco,
to what extent Tescothe world's third largest food retailerfelt
involved in the new groups the Government had set up to consider
food policy, she repeated several times that it was "early
response does not suggest that the food sector feels particularly
engaged so far. We believe that both the Food Strategy Task
Force and the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Food could benefit from
input from the food sector. They should set out how they intend
to involve members of the sector in their deliberations.
90. There is little publicly available information
about the work of either the Task Force or the Cabinet Sub-Committee.
In the case of the Sub-Committee this not surprising. Aside from
the membership and terms of reference, information about Cabinet
Committees is not routinely published and papers relating to Cabinet
Committees are often classified as restricted.However, the lack of information makes it difficult to assess
the effectiveness of these groups.
91. In October 2008, the Government announced that
it was establishing a Council of Food Policy Advisers, to exist
for two years in the first instance, and to provide advice directly
to Hilary Benn. The Council has 16 members and so far has met
every month throughout 2009. Its priorities are: to identify what
a healthy sustainable diet is and how accessible and affordable
it is, and to establish how to communicate the benefits of a healthy
diet that has a low environmental impact.
92. Information about the work of the Council of
Food Policy Advisers is freely available. The Council has a page
on Defra's website, with comprehensive details of its monthly
discussions. Input from the food sector is not a problem in the
same way either, because several of the Council's members are
directly involved in the industry. However, this creates difficulties
of its own. Sainsbury's expressed some concerns about the Council
of Food Policy Advisers, commenting:
[G]iven that one of our main competitors is on
the Council, we will have to evaluate how we interact with the
group. DEFRA therefore needs to work out how it can encourage
stakeholder participation in overall strategic policy, while recognising
the competitive nature of the sector.
When we asked Defra about its engagement with stakeholders
more generally, it told us: "Officials are currently conducting
a review of relationships Defra has with its food sector stakeholders
and the channels through which we engage. We will revise our approach
in the light of this review."
Defra should use its review of its relationships with the food
sector to consider how it can encourage the wider food sector
to interact with the Council of Food Policy Advisers.
93. We extend a cautious welcome
to the new groups working on food policy. The composition of the
Food Strategy Task Force and the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Food
means that they have the potential to improve co-ordination across
Government. However, the Task Force and the Sub-Committee must
be used as a way of facilitating action, rather than a substitute
for it. To this end, as much information as possible about the
groups' decisions and the work resulting from them should be published
on the internet. The Government should make use of modern, IT-based
solutions as a way of engaging with consumers and the food and
farming industries. The Council of Food Policy Advisers is already
setting a good example. The Task Force should aim to publish more
information about its work and the Sub-Committee should consider
whether it can disclose any, even very basic, informationif
not about its work, then at least about any work set in train
as a result of its deliberations.
94. Defra's vision for the
UK food and farming industries is still being formulated. We are
encouraged by the signs that Defra has begun to recognise the
importance of UK production, as well as trade, in securing food
supplies. It is essential that it develops and articulates this
vision. Clear leadership from Defra is crucial to the security
of the UK's food supplies because it will encourage the food and
farming industries, and consumers, to respond in a co-ordinated
way to the challenges posed by a growing global population, climate
change, and increasingly scarce resources.
Food security is defined as a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.