15. Food supply
As late as 1975 Britain had a strong agricultural and horticultural sector which was backed by the State. It the early 1970s it was claimed that if all the farmers in Western Europe were as efficient as those in Britain that Europe would be able to feed its population twice over. Then in the 1980s the support of the British Government for domestic food production ceased and the importation of cheap food from abroad was welcomed as a way of lowering the cost of living. Today a large amount of the food that is consumed in Britain is produced in the developing world. This means depriving the developing world of its food. It also means expending a lot of fuel transporting food that was once grown locally thousands of miles and damaging the environment in the process. The idea that there might be seasonality in the food we eat is a thing of the past but at a considerable environmental cost that the British Government has made no attempt to curtail.
Few people in Britain ever comment about the environmental effect of consuming food out of season. It makes little sense but is now taken as being the norm by the bulk of the population. Even countries that have only recently joined the EU like Romania have started to import an ever increasing amount of their agricultural produce from countries like Turkey and Egypt but there is still some seasonality in their fruit and vegetable supply. Despite what the Government and special interest groups say there is absolutely no indication that people are prepared to take a more responsible attitude to the food that they eat any more than they are prepared to drive fewer miles or generate less garbage.
Many people who express their concern about ecological matters, like the loss of the rainforests or global warming, do not think that it is wrong to eat cheap food that is produced on the back of habitat destruction. This is at a time that there are millions of acres of farm land in Western Europe that is reverting to woodland due to the lack of agricultural need in a high tax environment.
People who are righteous about the importance of recycling do not think about the environmental damage that their initial consumption has caused. Moving a heavy glass bottle of wine around the planet is not environmentally friendly. Recycling the bottles afterwards is hardly going to rectify the initial misdeed particularly as there is little that can be done with recycled glass. For the long term well being of the planet the best consumption has to be minimal consumption. Recycling is seldom as beneficial as most people believe it to be. Recycling is often as damaging to the environment as the initial production process. This is never acknowledged because to all Western Governments all additional expenditure is good as it can be equated to growth.
The number of people who are employed in food production in the UK is now less than 1% of the working population. To the Government it is acceptable to sacrifice these people if it maintains or better lowers the cost of food. It explains why both the Labour and Conservative politicians want to abolish the subsidies on agricultural production that are paid under the Common Agricultural Policy. At a stroke all British families would see a financial benefit. Finding further reductions will be very hard but by then another generation of politicians will be in power. In parts of France up to 20% of the working population are still linked with farming. The French Government has always had the fear that if their rural population lost their main source of income that they would then have no option but to flood into the cities. This simple fact shows the reason why there are such different attitudes to agriculture and subsidies between the countries of Europe, and between Europe and the USA.
Most of the food that is consumed in Europe is now produced outside the Western nations. The recent sudden rises in the cost of basic foodstuffs has served to improve income for cereal farmers but agriculture is notorious for the way that the market oscillates from year to year. One reason for the wild fluctuations in some basic foodstuffs is that there are no strategic reserves like there once were. The principles of 'just in time' delivery apply to agricultural products as much as they do to car manufacture. Today the World has only 3 months supply of basic foodstuffs and no reserves. A slight fluctuation in the weather in just one part of the World and this lack of a buffer has a dramatic effect on prices. In the past the British Government subsidised the strategic storage of basic foodstuffs. That no longer happens and with no one else to fund the cost of storage prices are driven by availability on the World market. Some Governments like that of India are prepared to bulk purchase cereals on the world market. The Governments of Western Nations are not. This leaves their populations exposed to fluctuations caused by inclement weather and speculators.
Last summer in Eastern Europe there was a drought which devastated the maize crop. As a result the price of maize increased which then caused the price of chicken feed to increase and so the price of eggs. It is a well documented fact, that all agricultural economists understand, which is that the year after the price of a commodity rises by a significant amount everyone who is able to moves into that crop and there is a glut and the price drops back again. Organisations like the United Nations and the European Commission have been talking about the need to increase food production. It takes time and money to gear up to put land back into cultivation that has lain fallow for several years. No one will make that investment until they can see that higher prices are going to be maintained. Yet it is to get prices to fall back to a low level that the politicians want output to be stepped up. No right minded person is going to invest in increasing output in any commodity just to get prices to fall. If a farmer was interested in getting into a market with a low yield then they would have done so already. This is typical of what happens when politicians and Civil Servants try to get involved in commercial matters but then so much that is said is intended purely for public consumption.
Published: August 2008