Is This The End of Food As We Know
A new film paints an apocalyptic picture of a world reduced to tinned
goods. But could it ever happen?
In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, (the film of which is out this
weekend), the only food left is in cans. In a post-apocalyptic
wasteland, a father and son scavenge for tinned goods. "Chili,
corn, stew, soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished
Is this a vision of our not-too-distant future? Will we soon
be stockpiling canned mandarin segments and clawing one another's
eyes out for the last tin of powdered milk in Tesco? It's not
a nice thought, but it's one that food campaigners have been begging
us to face up to for some time now. In this uncertain world, we
can no longer take our food supply for granted. 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,
whether by natural disasters, rising fuel costs, climate change
or the massive pressures placed on the global food system by a
rising population. We shrugged it off, setting off in our cars
for another wasteful trolley of ready-meals.
In 2008, American pundit Paul Roberts published The End of Food.
Roberts argued that the "bullet" attacking the world's
food system could come from any number of sources: avian flu,
"a sharp spike in the price of oil, a series of extreme weather
conditions, an outbreak of some new plant disease". Any one
of these, and we'll be scrabbling in the canned goods aisles.
More than one at once, and there might be no canned good aisles
left to scrabble in. In April 2008, when spiralling food prices
led to riots around the globe, people in Haiti were reduced to
eating mud cakes.
At least that level of food anxiety could never happen in Britain.
Or could it? For years, the Government told us everything was
fine. This was a land of plenty. Only four years ago, Gordon Brown's
Treasury assured us that food security in Britain was not an issue
because we were a rich country, and could buy food from wherever
we chose, as if the world were our personal larder. Now, finally,
as The Sunday Telegraph reported last week, the Government has
woken up to the problem. A new report launched on Tuesday entitled
Food 2030 gives a warning that Britain can no longer afford to
be complacent. "We need to think differently about food,"
said Gordon Brown in his foreword to the report, produced by the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Setting
out a new food strategy for the next two decades, the report says
that the industry needs to prepare for "sudden shocks"
such as natural disasters or price spikes. Britain will need to
produce more food, we are told, but will have to do so sustainably,
"without damaging the air, soil, water and marine resources,
biodiversity and climate that we all depend on".
Here was a long overdue acknowledgment that farming is actually
pretty essential. Unlike Gordon Brown, food is something we can't
do without. Labour has hardly been the countryside's best friend.
But at last, the "2030" report tells us the obvious
truth that "the natural environment and the economy are intrinsically
linked". The food and farming sector employs 3.6 million
people. It is in everyone's interests to see this sector thrive.
Britain will never be 100 per cent self-sufficient: life would
be miserable without the imported pleasures of coffee, tea or
spice. But the more food we can produce locally, the more secure
our food supply will be in the event of sudden blips in the supply
chain. UK farming, states the Defra report, "should produce
as much food as possible, as long as it is responsive to demand".
Well said! Except that very little in the report suggests that
this dying Labour government is going to take any serious steps
to make the necessary renaissance in British farming come about.
The Government wants us all to eat a "healthy and sustainable
diet". Yet instead of any real reform, we are directed to
"an enhanced eat-well website". There is a pointed lack
of any mention of organic food. The report blethers about such
things as the "milk roadmap" and the "fruit and
vegetable task force". But there is no serious new injection
of either money or laws to aid farmers. Sustain, a lobbying alliance
for better food and farming, has already attacked the report as
"soft", complaining that it constitutes a "series
of minor tweaks to our fundamentally unsustainable food system".
By raising the idea of improving self-sufficiency, the "2030"
report only brings home the extent to which we have moved in the
opposite direction in recent years. The problem of food security
goes far beyond this country, but even by the standards of our
European neighbours, Britain performs badly.
Look at fruit. In 1963, we grew around 30 per cent of our own
fruit; now it is closer to 5 per cent. Compare this with France,
which in 1963 grew enough fruit to feed 90 per cent of the population
and still produces enough to feed 80 per cent; or Italy which
produced around 110 per cent of its fruit needs in 1963 and still
does today. We may not have Italy's sun-kissed orange groves,
but we could still do better with the land we have. Over the past
13 years, our self-sufficiency in food overall has plummeted from
75 per cent to 60 per cent.
Take dairy. Our milk and cream are among the best in the world.
Give a spoonful of British double cream to a Frenchman and he
will swoon. Yet our dairy farmers are in a quandary, unable to
sell their delicious product for more than it costs them to produce
it. A litre of milk costs the consumer 70-80p, of which the farmer
gets only 21-28p, the same as it costs to produce. No wonder countless
dairy farmers leave the industry.
There is a similar predicament in the honey industry. There is
huge demand for British honey, boosted partly by awareness of
the worrying collapse in honeybee colonies. Yet in many shops,
all native honey is gone by halfway through the year. Of the 400g
of honey per person we consume every year, only 80g is British.
The reason? We currently have a mere 300 professional beekeepers
in this country, many of them nearing retirement age. It will
only get worse unless something is done. When I attended a forum
on the future of honeybees at No 10 Downing Street last September,
many well-intentioned words were spoken about saving British bees
and honey. Yet when I suggested to a Government advisor that they
might think of subsidising honey farmers, he laughed nervously.
It is all too easy to attack the "2030" report for
its typical Brownian mix of hypocrisy and impotence. I wonder,
though, how many of us really have the stomach for root-and-branch
reforms of our farming system. The Conservatives have said that
they want action on sustainable food "with a supermarket
ombudsman and legislation to enforce honest labelling if the retailers
won't act". But David Cameron has stopped short of spelling
out what the "sustainable farming" he favours might
Biologist Colin Tudge, organiser of the Campaign for Real Farming,
says that our politicians are "dangerously deluded"
about farming. "Feeding people is easy," says Tudge,
but only if our farmers switch to a "maximum variety"
system of agriculture which puts plants first and meat second.
This would involve a complete redesign of agriculture.
The odds are, we won't get the crisis measures we need for our
food system until the crisis has already hit. So let's hope that
The Road is just a scary story, not a prophecy.
Bee Wilson writes The Kitchen Thinker column in Stella and
is the Guild of Food Writers' food journalist of the year
January 12, 2010