Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Food security

Last week, one of my lunches was a Thai Chicken 'lunch pot' from the condemned food counter at Tesco (less than half price of course). While it was heating, I read the ingredients list and was horrified to discover that the country of origin for the chicken was Thailand!

I have nothing against the Thais exporting meat, but surely it does not make economic or environmental sense to import chicken for use in a ready meal from 9,000 miles away? Not when there are probably a million chicken farms located in between.

Anyway, it got me thinking of the issue of food security. The next World War will probably be fought over access to food and water, when Global Warming and an ever increasing population exacerbate current food shortages.  Low lying areas will flood as the polar ice-caps melt, while drought zones will get even less rainfall. To avoid catastrophe, surely it is up to every country to encourage their population to grow as much food as possible in the most environmentally friendly way possible?  Shouldn't they encourage supermarkets and food businesses to buy locally?

This argument isn't as straight-forward as it may initially seem.  With all the best intentions in the world, can Britain feed itself?  Even in the 1930's, Britain did not produce enough food to feed it's population.  For more than 50 years prior to World War 2, Britain's agricultural sector was trapped in an economic depression while cheap imports kept prices low and farmers went bankrupt.  Food production fell during that time. After the War, the huge push into factory farming was driven by the need for food security but, as a result, we now have green deserts of monoculture, where the soil has been depleted of nutrients because crops are no longer rotated, leaving the farms dependent on fertilisers. 

Animals were confined to "factory farms", where their welfare was severely compromised in order to squeeze more chickens/pigs/cattle into smaller and smaller spaces.  This is changing, but if we provide farm animals with sufficient space, fresh air, daylight and fresh food to enable a decent standard of welfare, will we produce enough food?  Is the even sufficient land available?

In addition, there are things we just can't grow:  rice, hard wheat suitable for bread, many fruits.

On the flip side, enterprising farmers in Africa and Asia have created businesses growing food for Britain.  A large proportion of fresh produce in our supermarkets is imported from places like Kenya.  Traditional British varieties of potatoes are imported from Egypt.  These farmers are creating wealth for themselves and paying a living to their workers, reducing their need for international aid to survive.  By buying British, will we deprive these people of the chance to better themselves and their nations?  Or are the contracts placed with these farms actually driving up local food prices beyond the budgets of the locals and diverting food to Europe which would otherwise feed them?  Are we exporting the worst of our current food production practices to them, in order to keep down costs?  Will we damage their farming environment, like we've damaged our own?

I wonder whether the French tolerate food imports in the same way as we do, since a walk through Carrefour leaves the impression that they're rather pay more for good food that is locally produced rather than buy cheap imports.  In their street markets, usually the person selling fresh produce is the farmer who grew it. They are proud of their local food producers and I understand that attitude.  I know the people who grow my vegetables and where they source their eggs.  I hope my butcher purchases his meat from ethical sources.  Personally, I do not want my food to travel thousands of miles around the world unless it is moving under it's own power (flying, walking or swimming).  I'd like to grow more of my own food, particularly the things our farmer doesn't grow (aubergine, peppers).

See what I mean?  This isn't a simple argument.  Where do we go from here?

- Pam

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