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.