Cumbrian floods: First or second order food scarcity?

The floods brought food scarcity to several Cumbrian towns this week with both household and supermarket stocks ruined — and some food production too with livestock scattered, some drowned . . . and the MacVities biscuit factory in Carlisle out of action.

But the notion that we’ll be seeing starving people in Keswick, Kendal or Carlisle is thankfully far-fetched, a totally unrealistic perspective.

So in the immediate short-term, people are taking up generous offers from neighbours. They are subject to ‘first order scarcity’.

  • First order scarcity: This is the absolute state. There’s little or no food. Floods disrupt food supplies quicker than harvest failure, quicker than wars

It really doesn’t matter how generous your neighbours are in such conditions. Famine looms.

But not in Cumbria. So what’s happening?

Difficult though it may be to think about, here in the UK, we have first order scarcity. can’t feed ourselves; some 40% of our food requirement comes into the country from overseas. Indeed, given the agricultural land available here and our population (~64M), even highly intensified farming won’t provide enough food for us.

Moreover, all cities wherever they are have food scarcity. Over 80% of UK citizens live in cities or conurbations, and have done for decades. And that figure is set to rise to over 90% in the next couple of decades.

So how do we manage feed everyone?

Answer: Though our ‘social adaptive capacity’; through infrastructures such as rapidly deployed emergency systems, through transport logistics, through trading systems, through technologies — through being able to export difficult-to-reverse engineer products, through investment in our brainpower in schools and universities . . . through a political economy that encourages this ‘social adaptive capacity’ to compensate for our ‘first order scarcity’.

As illustration of our ‘social adaptive capability’,note  the rapidity of emergency service responses, the re-establishment of transport and logistics systems . . . and the Prime Minister and other politicians on the Cumbrian scene, literally so.

  • Second order scarcity: is the lack of social adaptive capacity to compensate for physical shortage.

And what can we learn from this concept of first and second order scarcity? I quote from Tony Allan writing about water scarcity:

Devoting resources to providing engineering and institutional remedies in the water sector will not solve the water problem for the whole political economy. Strengthening and diversifying the political economy will, on the other hand, create changed circumstances that will enable water problems to be solved.

An improvement in social adaptive capacity can compensate for a physical water shortage. An improvement in the volume and quality of water cannot compensate for a shortage in social adaptive capacity in the same measure.

The image at the top of this blogpost shows the predicted changes in crop yields owing to climate change. The concept of first and second order scarcity indicates the only way we can meet the challenges the first order food scarcity humanity is facing is by investing in social adaptive capacity, as important here in the densely populated UK as anywhere.

note: The concept of first and second order scarcity was first proposed about water scarcity in a PhD thesis Environment, scarcity and conflict — a study of Malthusian concerns by Leif Ohlusson at the University of Goteberg (1999). This concept was then taken up by Tony Allan, notably in his influential book The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the global economy .(2nd edition, reprinted 2012)

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