Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, January 08, 2007

Hard to swallow

On the geopolitics of food

New research indicates that gas-guzzling cars are a much less important factor in climate change than the huge amounts of food devoured by carnivorous 'burger man'.

by Jonathon Porritt

The Guardian (January 4 2006)

Of all the seasonal homilies about "green" Christmases and "sustainable" new year pledges - an oxymoron if ever I've heard one - only one stuck in my mind: each of us could make a bigger contribution to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by becoming a vegan than by converting to an eco-friendly car.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have calculated the relative carbon intensity of a standard vegan diet in comparison to a US-style carnivorous diet, all the way through from production to processing to distribution to cooking and consumption. An average burger man (that is, not the outsize variety) emits the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes more carbon dioxide every year than the standard vegan. By comparison, were you to trade in your conventional gas-guzzler for a state of the art Prius hybrid, your carbon dioxide savings would amount to little more than one tonne per year.

This may come as a bit of a shock to climate change campaigners. "Stop eating meat" is unlikely to be the favourite slogan of the new Stop Climate Chaos coalition. Even "eat less meat" might not go down too well, even though Compassion in World Farming has produced an utterly compelling explanation - in their report, Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat - of why this really is the way forward.

The basic rule of thumb is that it takes two kilograms of feed to produce every kilogram of chicken, four kilograms for pork, and at least seven kilograms for beef. The more meat we eat, the more grain, soya and other feedstuffs we need. So when we hear that the total global meat demand is expected to grow from 209 million tonnes in 1997 to around 327 million tonnes in 2020, what we have to hold in our mind is all the extra hectares of land required, all the extra water consumed, the extra energy burned, and the extra chemicals applied to grow the requisite amount of feed to produce 327 million tonnes of meat.

Only a tiny proportion of those recently alerted to the threat of climate change would make any connection whatsoever between this and the food they eat. These are two entirely different zones of environmental reality - and getting one's head around climate change is proving to be enough of a challenge anyway.

Mass awareness

This year will undoubtedly be looked back on as the year when mass awareness at last kicked in - largely because it's been such a shocking year in terms both of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and of the spate of new research findings about accelerating impacts on both the Arctic and the Antarctic, on the Russian and Canadian permafrost, on the acidification of the oceans, and so on.

It was also the year when the debate about how much oil is left in the ground bubbled up again, with oil trading at more than $60 a barrel for far longer than analysts imagined possible. The Goldman Sachs prediction that oil could reach $100 a barrel within the next decade didn't seem quite so daft any more.

The relatively imminent prospect of finding ourselves living in a carbon-constrained oil-scarce world is, at long last, beginning to impact on government policymakers. But policymakers in the agricultural wing of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) may well be the last to wake up to this - even though the climate change team is only just down the corridor. My Christmas reading included a brave new Vision for the common agricultural policy (CAP), produced by Treasury and Defra, presumably as part of their campaign to see off Jacques Chirac and his legions of French peasants. All in all, it's quite a good read, but the section on food security (defined as "an individual's access to enough food to maintain a healthy and active life") is astonishingly complacent.

As far as our government is concerned, it apparently doesn't matter any longer where the food we buy comes from, as long as it meets minimum food safety and animal welfare standards. If our big retailers can source their produce from elsewhere in the world at lower costs than UK producers, what's the problem? In a global economy, where food is treated just like any other traded commodity, we may still need farmers (for the time being at least), but we don't necessarily need them based in the UK itself.

Many people believe the government has got this one badly wrong. Food isn't "just another commodity", it is the foundation of personal wellbeing and is inextricably interwoven into a nation's culture, character and land use. In that regard, farming and food production embody a set of skills and capabilities on which the long-term security of any nation still ultimately depends.

To demonstrate this, just add a few more geopolitical variables to the pot - on top of climate change and declining availability of oil. Just before Christmas, we heard that the Chinese economy grew by 16.5% last year - almost twice as fast as official figures. Oil imports have soared correspondingly, and will keep on rising. China is no longer self-sufficient in food. As meat consumption rockets (from four kilograms per person forty years ago to nearly sixty kilograms today), so too do imports of grain and soya. Competition for land and water has never been fiercer; protests and riots over land use are now commonplace.

At least China's population isn't growing much any longer, unlike that of India and many other countries. We are on track for a world population of around 9 billion by the middle of this century - 6 billion more than in 1950. Massive increases in food production and in average yields have just about kept up with population growth so far, but at huge cost to the environment. And there are few agricultural experts who think we can any longer sustain that kind of increased productivity.

Then start mixing them all together. When oil starts trading at $100 a barrel, what happens to food production systems that are entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels? How secure - let alone economically viable - will today's global supply chains prove to be when the worst effects of climate change begin to impact on food production all around the world? What will be the impact on food production of more and more governments using more and more of their land for energy crops and biofuels in order to address the problem of climate change?

Worst nightmare

Modelling these variables is a policy-maker's worst nightmare, but they absolutely cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, they barely feature in Defra's new vision, which seeks to persuade its readers that there is no alternative but to accelerate the globalisation of the food economy. "Complete self-sufficiency" is summarily dismissed, as if anyone is out there arguing for complete self-sufficiency anyway. What they are arguing for might be termed "cost-effective self-reliance", as a hedge against the growing threat of widespread ecological and social disruption - food security seen in terms of land use, quality, sustainability and food safety, not just temporary availability and access.

And that means policies that do not leave our farmers gratuitously disadvantaged by overseas producers who care little for the state of the environment or animal welfare; policies that actively promote local sourcing, obliging our retailers to be as smart and creative about local supply chains as they are about global supply chains; policies that set out systematically to reduce carbon intensity in food production and distribution; policies that build on the excellent work already achieved through the public sector food procurement initiative, and the development of new agri-environment measures.

It also means a rather different vision, acknowledging up front that a sustainable future for the UK depends on securing a thriving rural economy, and that this, in turn, depends on keeping sustainable food production absolutely at the heart of the rural economy. This may come as a bit of a surprise to some conservationists today, but the worst possible outcome for the British countryside and the global environment would be further reform of the CAP - ostensibly in the name of "more environment-friendly farming" - that resulted in more and more farmers going out of business. Which is precisely why we need a much more intelligent debate about food security than the one we're getting at the moment.


Jonathon Porritt is programme director of Forum for the Future and chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission. His book, Capitalism As If The World Matters (2005), is published by Earthscan Hardback.

Bill Totten


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