What about world food security? - Veterinary Practice
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What about world food security?

ANDREW COE wonders if there is light at the end of the long tunnel for Britain’s farmers

WHEAT prices have doubled; the cost of food is rising; the UK is only 60% self-sufficient in food; there are only six weeks’ supply of wheat left in the world grain store.

A scene out of a science fiction book/film, that sees the disintegration of civilisation as we know it with civil disorder and food riots on the streets? Not at all. More like an accurate and factual assessment of where we are today with the world’s food supply. Not a particularly reassuring place to be.

At long last, though, it seems that those in positions of power in the UK have cottoned on to this. Only last week the Government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, was saying that the issue of global food security was one that needed to be tackled urgently, quoting the very figures displayed in the paragraph above.

So perhaps there is some light at the end of the tunnel for British farmers, albeit at the end of a tunnel that is probably longer than many of them would like.

Diverse reasons

How have we got ourselves into this mess? The reasons are diverse and complex. The ever increasing world population, now at something over 6 billion and on course to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, is an obvious driving factor.

But population alone is perhaps not the most important variable as many of the most populous countries have historically (and largely through poverty) consumed relatively little of the world’s food resources.

Of more importance is the increasing affluence of countries such as India and China which between them count for not far short of 2.5 billion people. With increasing affluence comes a significant change in diet, an increase in the quantity of meat and other animal protein consumed. The production of animal protein is, of course, very wasteful of vegetable-based food supplies, particularly when that animal protein is produced intensively by being fed grain.

So as the world’s standard of living rises, so does the relative quantity of food needed to satisfy consumer demand. And if the quantity of food on offer doesn’t increase, then the price most certainly will.

Land for biofuels

Now throw into the mix the amount of land, particularly in the USA and Brazil, that is currently being taken out of food production and put instead into crops for biofuels. Some 20% of productive arable land in the USA is earmarked in this respect and it will, of course, have a significant impact on the quantity of grain that finds its way onto the world market.

Put all the above factors together and it is easy to see why wheat prices have doubled.

For many years now, the Government has had no interest in encouraging Britain to become more self-sufficient in food production, instead taking the view that as a rich trading nation we can afford to import whatever we need, when we need it.

That is all fine and dandy when food is in good supply but should a real shortage occur it might become a policy that we live to regret. Especially when in many respects the world seems less predictable now than it did 10 or 20 years ago.

All this could be good news for British farmers if the Government chief scientist is serious about his concerns and decides that the Government really should do something about it. The difficulty, as always, is that so long as alternatives exist from abroad that are cheaper than homegrown ones, the free market economy will mean that we continue to import to ensure that the food price remains as low as possible.

Run like a business

Only if there is a change of policy that dictates that food security has a financial value in its own right are we likely to see a change.

At present there is a real danger that public policy and public service are being run entirely like a business competing in the marketplace. The old cliché about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing applies so aptly to the British Government’s attitude to British agriculture.

Thousands of dairy farms have already gone. Sheep production is just coming out of a crisis of last year’s FMD outbreak’s making; pig farmers are marching on Parliament.

It seems that only when agriculture as we know it in this country (familyrun mixed farms) has been completely destroyed will we then wake up to find that the consequences were not what was intended at all.

It would be far preferable to have another positive agricultural revolution before that somewhat bleak scenario was reached.

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