The Three 'Rs'
Three fundamental principles should under-pin any approach to food security: resilience, resolarisation and relocalisation.
More than two years after the 2007 floods in the West of England, over 150 families are still homeless – many of them in Tewkesbury. The anniversary of the floods prompted a number of moving interviews with these environmental refugees – driven from their homes by the kind of climate-induced disaster that we are going to see so much more of over the next few years.
I just happened to be listening to some of those interviews on the radio the day that I was getting to grips with the latest extraordinary report from the Global Humanitarian Forum: The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis. The findings of this report are stark: “Every year, climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million seriously affected, and economic losses of $125 billion. Four billion people are vulnerable, and 500 million people are at extreme risk.”
And the title tells it all. Understandably, there is little coverage here in the UK devoted to those 325 million “seriously affected”. We would be drowned by the unceasing flood of personal testimonies; our capacity for empathy would be overwhelmed. But as Kofi Annan puts it in his Introduction to the report: “Where does a fisherman go when warmer sea temperatures deplete coral reefs and fish stocks? How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when the water dries up? Will families be provided for when fertile soils and fresh water are contaminated with salt from rising seas? The first hit and worst affected by climate change are the world’s poorest groups. 99% of all casualties occur in developing countries. A stark contrast to the 1% of global emissions attributable to some fifty of the least developed nations. If all countries were to pollute so little, there would be no climate change. New climate policy must therefore empower vulnerable communities to cope with these challenges.”
Hot on its heels came another blockbuster report, this time from Oxfam. Suffering the Science, published just before the meeting of G8 leaders in Italy in July 2009, gave vent to yet more liberal effusions of hot air. Its specific forecasts about rice and maize (on which many hundreds of millions of people depend) show reductions in yield of up to 15% by 2020 in much of sub-Saharan Africa and India. That’s 2020, in case the date just blurred past you, not somewhere off in what politicians comfortably talk about as “the long term”.
Its conclusion: “Climate change’s most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase in hunger. The countries with existing problems in feeding their people are those most at risk from climate change. Millions of farmers will have to give up traditional crops as they experience changes in the seasons that they and their ancestors have depended on. Climate-related hunger may become the defining human tragedy of this century.”
This timing issue is critical. It has an often hidden but still extraordinary effect on the way people internalise the reality of climate change. If something is ‘twenty-five to thirty years away’, that belongs to the next generation – i.e. not us. If it’s ten years away, that belongs to us, and there’s no getting around it. Right now, for instance, Professor John Beddington, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, is doing the rounds of government departments and universities warning people of the ‘Perfect Storm’ that will most likely be upon us – in 2030! That’s both very precise, and between what belongs to us and what belongs to the next generation.
But at least Beddington is sending out the right kind of storm warning, and as a good systems-thinker, reminds his listeners that the linkages between different phenomena are as important as the phenomena themselves. Personally, I think he’s holding back on the full extent of all the synergistic effects we are likely to see impacting people’s lives over the next few years.
The oil/food nexus is of particular importance. Memories fade so fast: it was little more than eighteen months ago that the impact of rising oil on food prices brought the whole question of food security back to the top of the global agenda. Food riots broke out in Morocco, Yemen, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Mexico and Mauritania.
Since then, food prices have come down again, tracking the fall in the price of oil since it hit US$147 a barrel in the middle of 2008. Right now, the economic recession is masking the inevitability of energy prices rising again just as soon as levels of economic activity pick up – particularly in China and India. As far as I can tell, there are no serious commentators who think that oil will ever go below US$40 a barrel again, and most are projecting a price range of between US$60 and US$110 by the middle of 2010. Even the oil companies now acknowledge that the days of “easy oil” are gone forever, removing the foundation stone on which the whole of modern food production has been built.
Without cheap oil and cheap gas, there is no more cheap food. Few people really understand the extent of our near-total dependency on fossil fuels – in terms of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, farm machinery, storage, supply chains, retail systems, and so on. As many commentators have pointed out, we are basically “eating oil”, and on an almost inconceivably inefficient basis.
It’s against that backdrop that one might legitimately despair of the quality of the current debate on food security here in the UK. ‘Free-market absolutists’ battle it out with self-sufficiency evangelists; advocates of genetic modification (GM) would have us believe that our only salvation lies in the adoption of GM crops on every front; the organic movement brushes aside concerns about the imperative of having to feed 9 billion people by 2050.
It is absolutely not enough, when confronted with this empirical reality, to fall back on platitudes of the following mind-boggling magnitude: “We believe that global food security means that everybody has enough to eat. National food security is hugely more relevant for developing countries than the rich countries of Western Europe. The UK is well-placed to access sufficient foodstuffs through a well-functioning world market.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Defra – the author of those words, continues to argue alongside all the big food retailers, as well as the National Farmers’ Union, that the UK’s food security is best served by ever deeper integration into international supply chains. But does that really make sense in such a fractured and uncertain world?
They are right, of course, to describe “absolute self-sufficiency” as “an illusion” – what would we do without our tea and coffee, or our oranges and bananas? But we need to get beyond the simplistic percentages. We need to recognise the distinctions between self-sufficiency and optimised, sustainable self-reliance.
And that means we must step back and look at the fundamental principles which underpin any serious approach to food security:
Our production systems here in the UK, as well as our supply chains globally, are seriously vulnerable in the face of the radical discontinuities I have discussed. Policy frameworks are best designed on the basis of ‘worst-case eventualities’, rather than ‘best-case improbabilities’. The Sustainable Development Commission first drew attention to this in its report in 2007, $100 a Barrel of Oil: Impacts on the Sustainability of Food Supply in the UK. This came out well before oil went not just to $100 but to $147, but attracted very little interest from Defra at that time.
Let’s just spell this out: the only way to avert a sequence of food crises resulting from supply disruptions and price spikes in oil and gas over the next twenty years is to systematically reduce our dependency on stored solar energy (fossil fuels) in favour of real-time solar energy.
All farms must therefore become powerhouses of renewable (solar) energy, investing as fast as can practically be arranged in on-site energy schemes such as wind turbines, solar thermal, photovoltaics, micro-hydro, biogas digesters, biomass boilers, and so on. It’s ludicrous that the government does not have a comprehensive grant or loan scheme to make this happen right now.
Beyond that, farmers are going to have to come to terms with the fact that, in future, nitrogen will be fixed, not by fossil fuels (stored solar energy), but by real-time solar energy, converted by legumes (particularly clover) into bio-available nitrogen. In other words, soil fertility will again be solar-powered – surely the most important solar opportunity of all.
Whichever way you cut it, a combination of high oil prices, high input prices, growing demand for food, an additional seventy million or so people every year, and growing pressure on soil, water and biodiversity, compounded by accelerating climate change and the kind of high carbon prices that are inevitably on their way, leads to only one rational conclusion: increased resilience by reducing the length (and vulnerability) of our supply chains. The more high-quality, healthy food we can produce close to the point of consumption, the more resilient our food supply chains are going to be.
That’s not an expression of some anti-globalisation extremism: it’s just common sense. The trends I have referred to earlier are not just foreseeable: they are inevitable. So why not get good at working with them rather than dying on the barricades of some superannuated ideology that sees global as good and local as second best and a bit sad? Some pragmatism here would be so welcome!