Only nine meals away from anarchy

July 26th, 2011

Food prices are seldom out of the news these days. A Daily Mail report last week talked about UK shoppers moving en masse to budget supermarkets as price hikes for many essentials over the past 12 months reach double digits. A more interesting article in the 27th June edition of the New Statesman caught my eye though, entitled “Nine meals away from anarchy”. The article, which focussed mainly on the increase in numbers of people in London growing their own food, noted how hooked our food systems have become on cheap oil. The article claimed that 81% of the 6.9 million tonnes of food Londoners consumed last year came from outside of the UK. With such high levels of import dependency and with an increasing reliance on ‘just in time’ stock management systems we are incredibly dependent on oil to fuel our food supplies, leading a former head of the Countryside Agency Ewen Cameron to remark that we were only ever “nine meals – or three days – away from anarchy”.

Of course oil prices are not the only factor causing increases in food prices – a rising demand caused by population growth, a diversion of agricultural crops into the production of bio fuels, adverse weather  events, and problems of declining soil fertility and water shortages all also play a part in inflating food costs. And it’s not just shoppers in the UK that feel the pinch. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that rising food prices in the developing world have pushed another 44 million people into extreme poverty since June 2010.

The current global food production system makes no sense. We need a system which is less dependent on cheap oil, more resilient to climate change and better able to maintain the resource on which production depends – the fertility and water retention capability of soils. This probably means a shift back towards producing a greater proportion of food for local consumption and less production for export than at present. It also requires greater support for more agro ecological farming practices that rely less on oil based inputs and do more to maintain soil fertility and water conservation. In the developing world it also means more support for the small scale producers who are already more likely to be following this style of production and who, given the right conditions, can be highly productive and part of a strategy to ensure food price stability in the poorer nations.

One response to “Only nine meals away from anarchy”

  1. Philip R Gilfoy Says:

    The problems we have come from this addiction to growth, all economies are dependent on the flow of oil, a finite resource. Over the past sixty years or more the demand and supply of oil has grown at an almost steady rate of seven percent per year, that means every ten years the demand has doubled. What’s more in order to meet the demand production has to double and prospectors have to discover ever larger fields. Since it’s plainly obvious that you can not have infinite growth within a finite product something has to give. Our gas and electricity suppliers keep telling us to be more efficient, all that means is they can continue to show growth without increasing supply. Soon there will be fines attached to excessive usage to both encourage people to use less while funding the departments set up to drive economic use. The world is addicted to oil, the global economy is reliant upon black gold and all of it’s uses not just the supply of groceries to our supermarkets but also many of the products within. As the oil becomes more scarce it will become more prioritised, it’s no coincidence that a serious destabilisation of the middle East is happening or that governments are being afforded greater powers while the people they represent are willingly relinquishing certain rites. Governments know that we are approaching a time when social stability will break down, riots wont be students trying to break into a clothing store so they can go to school looking cool wearing all the latest designer gear, it will be the middle class citizens trying to feed their family after their jobs were lost and reduction of industry turned into suspension of industry. We may go back to the three day week, power cuts, limited supply of everything, selective produce through lack of imported goods because of the increased cost over the price people will be able to pay. A Malthusian event horizon. It is within our lifetime not our children’s. It is our responsibility to curb this addiction to growth and greed. If our elitist governors think that people are little more than equations, numbers that need adjustment in order for growth to continue then it would not be surprising to see more bloody conflict and maybe even a virus or two to cull the numbers. Once they’re at a more equitable level then there will be jobs available, housing and even the resources such as oil wont be over stretched. It’s a nightmare scenario but one that many people have considered and one that will feed the flame that ignites the people when they reach the ninth missed meal.

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