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On the evening of the nineteenth of January 2010, The City Food Lecture was held at the Guildhall in London. The main speaker was Sir David King who was the government’s chief scientific adviser for seven years.
Sir David spoke about the huge challenges that we face and how they interconnect. He said that in the past when a population had overworked and misused their land, they could move on to fresh land. We can no longer do that. We have ploughed the last furrow.
He mentioned that we entered the twentieth century with 1.5 billion people and left it with 6 billion and that we can be fairly certain that the 8 billion mark will be passed before 2030 because the people who will breed the extra numbers had already been born.
Those numbers will have a knock-on effect on other aspects of life on this planet.
Climate change, Sir David thought, is influenced by human activity. We are using a set of resources much faster than they can be replaced or new ones found. Food production would be under severe pressure and water would be in short supply.
He said that if the forests were the left lung of the world, then the oceans were the right lung and we are in danger of losing some of that capacity to absorb CO2 and release oxygen. If present trends continue, by mid century the oceans will be bereft of large fish.
He suggested that resource shortages could cause conflict and terrorism and even speculated that the Iraq War might one day be identified as the first resource war of the 21st century.
He gave examples of projects where desertification was being reversed but he said that in democracies there is a disconnect between what we understand is necessary and government action which is usually delayed until it’s almost too late.
New varieties of apple are set to extend the UK growing season by a month and so lessen the country’s dependence on exports. Varieties such as Jazz, Cameo and English Braeburn are also expected to taste better than their foreign competitors, improve the balance of payments and because there will be less transportation have a lower carbon footprint.
The present government has up until now taken the view that Britain is a trading nation that is best at producing high tech goods and providing financial services such as banking and insurance. Food should be imported from the cheapest areas while our farmers act as glorified wildlife custodians.
But in documents recently released, DEFRA acknowledges that food security can no longer be taken for granted and pressure on natural resources across the globe is making markets more volatile. Hilary Benn has been on TV and in the press saying that UK farmers should produce a bigger proportion of our food.
The papers state that the UN predicts the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050, and as we have often pointed out, this needs to be done at a time when we will be short of land, water, oil and fertiliser. We will also have severe climatic disruption due to climate change.
We recieved a letter from Mr Benn over a year ago saying that he found the points raised in our book “Famine in the West” interesting and that he would be passing a copy to Defra policy officials for them to read.
We at Peak Food have been warning for several years that we have an unsustainable food production system that will be unable to sustain the 8 billion people expected by 2025. Modern farming is dependent on finite fossil fuels for it’s power needs, for nitrogen fertilizer and for pesticides. The world is losing about 25 million acres of land each year to desertification, salination and urban growth. Climate change will bring disruptive weather in the form of droughts in some places and floods in others. Shortages of water for irrigation due to falling aquifer levels and lower river flows because of competition from cities will also limit yields.
We have not just warned of food supply failing to keep up with rising population. There is also the possibility of a sudden and disastrous failure of the food supply system in the event of geo-political events causing severe fuel shortages. Farming operations such as seeding and harvesting need to be done at the correct time and without diesel in the tank, farms would grind to a halt.
We have had lots of people who agree that Peak Food may already be here and that from now on the amount of food that can be produced for each person in the world will decline as the population increases, but in general, because we are just ordinary people, our message is ignored.
So when Professor John Beddington, no less a person than the chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government, made a speech earlier this year predicting that a “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources, all operating on the same time frame, threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst affected regions, we expected big things to happen.
This should have been headline news in newspapers and on television. There should have been demands that the government make this a top priority and start to develop a sustainable food supply system. Considering the consequences for our children, this should have been the subject everyone was talking about.
But what happened? Pretty much nothing. The media was full of big brother celebrities and other trivia. So far as we know, the government has not started any new major programmes, and the general public missed it completely.
Peak Food – does nobody care?