This is an expanded version of the talk I’m giving at the Climate Change Conference in Birmingham today, 6th November.
The first is resource depletion. Our food, and that of every other specie on the planet, is and always has been dependent on water, land, soils and energy. And all of them are under threat.
The other is population growth, along with all the issues of scale and contingencies involved.
Before going into detail, here is a brief summary about the Birmingham Food Council and what it does:
First and arguably the most important point: We’re independent, a critical friend to the socio-political set-up, answerable to none, whether power-broker or corporate.
We focus our limited resources on important matters that don’t get much attention or airtime. Perhaps remarkably this means the space between farm gate and retail outlet, that is to say where the financial value and power lies.
Within that space we focus on the economics of the food network, also food safety, integrity and assurance, plus the role we can play in responding to the strategic challenges of food security.
The scale of what it takes to feed a population
It’s difficult to grasp the scale of what it takes to feed a population. To throw a light on the challenge, see this cheery little video about that big subject:
Scale and contingencies
For the UK population to follow the adage, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, 24bn apples are needed.
We’re told that we should each eat 5-a-day portions of fruit’n’veg a day. Five times the number of portions (~120 billion) means the challenge of getting them all to each of us in the UK shifts the calculation into a new mathematical gear; it’s factorial sum, so n-times bigger.
By the by, the n-times bigger points to the real-world challenges to ethical decision-making, for t’s not only an issue of scale, mind-bogglingly though the stats are just for 5-a-day for the UK population, let alone for the billions now living on Planet A.)
Planet A . . . the food supply chain . . . and the 66.5M of us in the UK
What can we draw out from this highly simplified info-graphic of the food network? Where to start? Us humans, homo sapiens, that’s where.
The food supply chain is shared by 7.6bn people . . . and counting
It was 2011. The UN announced in January of that year, the world’s population had hit 7bn.
I’d just begun the Birmingham 2050 Scenarios Project on possible food futures for the city.
And my third grandchild was born here in Birmingham. As I held his little self in my arms, a thought came unbidden into my mind. Will you, I wondered, be alive in 2050? Not the greatest thought in a Maternity Ward. Possibly, though, a realistic one. In his eight short years, another 0.6bn more people on Planet A.
(an aside: And yes, I can and do spend a lot of my time thinking about such scary matters. Here’s how and why.)
I’m a post-War baby-boomer, one of the lucky generation. In my life-time, the population in the UK has risen by a third. I notice it, too. Queues, Crowds, Traffic. Tarmac. Endless procedures and processes to this and that. (Food’s better though, much better.)
Meanwhile, the global population has increased by 300%. And looks set to increase by another 2.5 billion or so more — that additional number, remember is equal to the total number of people on Planet A when I was an infant. (And yes, the topic of population was on the agenda then, was until the mid-80s. Now it’s the elephant in the room.)
Planet A (there is no Planet B)
Growing food takes land, soils, water and energy. For a detailed account of how climate change, resource depletion and population pressures, plus increasingly volatile geopolitics threaten the growing of food, skim through our report: Global risks to UK food supplies or, if you prefer a 5-minute video outlining the issues, watch here.
Here are just a few stats from those sources:
- Water: The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that, by 2025, there will be 1.8bn people living in areas with absolute water scarcity, and two thirds of the global population living in ‘water-stressed’ regions. The south-east of England falls into that latter category and East Anglia, sometimes referred to as the UK’s breadbasket has been classed as ‘semi-arid’ for over a decade.
If you haven’t got water security, you haven’t got food security,
- Land: East Anglia has been losing top soil at a rate of 1-3cm per year since 1850 . . . while there is virtually no wilderness left; see p7 of the Global risks report.
Indeed, it looks likely we’re going to have to grow enough food for a third more people on two-thirds of the land used for agriculture now, owing to soil loss through, inter alia, erosion, also nutrient depletion and the need for carbon capture (afforestation to you and me).
- Climate change: Among the many effects of climate change, here’s one that few know about. Most plants won’t grow above about 30-32 degrees. This is why broccoli heads were so small in the summer of 2018.
- Anti-microbial resistance (AMR): Many think AMR is only to do with antibiotics not working against infection in people. Not so. AMR is a big issue in combatting crop infestations. Without antibiotics against fungal and oomycete disease, crop yields plummet. Famines can result, as it did in 1840s Ireland. Potato blight, caused by an oomycete, destroyed the crop year after year. About one million people died in the ensuing Great Famine, the horror and scale of it due to British indifference to the mass starvation of people.
The 66.5M people in the UK
The shadow of the last time the UK faced an existential threat from starvation hung over my childhood. Less than a decade before my birth, the UK imported 70% of its food, those imports threatened by the German blockade. It was touch and go. Now, decades later, we import only 40% and there are another 15M or so mouths to feed. A huge success story.
But we live in on these misty, temperate, densely populated isles, where much of the terrain is unsuitable for agriculture, except livestock grazing, some not even suitable for that.
The 66.5M people in the UK . . . and the possibility of Brexit
Look again at the stats in the infographic. According to the House of Lords European Union Committee report on Brexit: food prices and availability (2018), only half of what we eat grown here. Of our imported food, a substantial proportion, comes from the EU27 or via EU Preferential Trade Agreements (PTA). And that includes much of the nutrients we need for our well-being.
Horticulture at scale in this climate with this terrain takes substantial capital. Possible to do, think Holland. But we here in the UK haven’t thought as the Dutch have done for over 60 years. Hence some 76% of our veg, and over 40% of our fruit, containing many of the the nutrients necessary to our well-being, come from the EU.
Moreover, remember the scale challenge above? And note what’s in the next section. The food we eat has come to us via the company of strangers. Very large numbers of them, from all over the world. Hence we now have lots of regulations about procedures and processes, the stuff you might have supposed I was moaning about above, but I wasn’t. It’s a necessary, vital part of ensuring the safety and the nutritional content of the food we put into our bellies. And the EU has the highest of standards in the world.
The boss of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, said to the House of Lords Select Committee that the prospect of a hard Brexit was ‘”terrifying”. He’s right. It is. And the possibility of a no deal or a hard Brexit hasn’t gone away. It could happen, might well happen at the end of December 2020, just over a year away.
I said earlier that we look at the space between farm-gate and retail outlet. What happens here? And where’s the data about it? Where are the stories? The images?
There’s not much around. Take images, as an example. You can find zillions of images on-line about farms and farming, though few of the industrial-scale processes necessary to feed the the millions within the UK, let along the 7.6 billion and rising in the rest of the world. Similarly there are images a-plenty showing food that’s plated up, the genre known for good reason as ‘food porn’.
In our view, we need to focus far more on what goes on between farm gate (wherever it may be, whatever grown there) and the food outlet (from top restaurant to school dinner, from supermarket shelf to corner shop).
It’s a complex adaptive system. Thus it’s largely opaque, not open to introspection. — no-one knows where their food comes from, not even the producers of it. (We need think differently about it, as outlined here.)
What happens in this space? Getting fresh produce into UK cities, the very stuff of your dinner tonight — and that of over 66M people in the UK alone, involves a series of complex, dynamically changing operations. A simplified (!) version is illustrated by this map (left).
It was first drawn on a flipchart by a fresh produce wholesaler and a senior supermarket executive who attended a workshop we ran as part of our consultation for our submission to the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence.
You can read more about what it means in this blogpost, and what it highlights — capital investment and profit margins, the reason why there are a few dominant companies, queries about who owns what when, how new technologies can suddenly change the system . . . while primary production. Ouch. Across the world, farmers scrape a living.
And if you think this map complicated enough, the supply chain permutations are endless. And the number of people involved are innumerable.
We’ve created (what we call the) PMCC Framework, which categorises everyone who contributes to getting food from farm to retail outlet into four groups: Producers, Multipliers, Controllers and Consumers (see left).
Although this space is opaque, it’s where all the money and all the power lies.
The huge challenge is this: The profit margins on safe, nutritious food are derisory all the way along the food chain. They range from 0-2.5%, usually nearer the zero end of that spectrum.
As for farming; i.e. before the farm gate, there aren’t profits, unless you scale up, or go niche or diversify into something other than growing produce. Not here in the UK (where some 80% of farm income is subsidies), nor across the world. And after the retail outlet, there are huge costs, mostly locally borne — through diet-related disease, packaging disposal etc.
There are, however, profits to be made on drug-foods. And if you’ve ever wondered what they are, watch this video:
It’s not just the costs of disease, packaging disposal, et al, considerable though that is. About half of the UK’s household food spend is on prodycts that carry standard-rate VAT, a usefully precise means of identifying not only drug foods, also the corporates that make and promote them.
It’s rarely recognised that the production of drug-food products uses a substantial proportion of our increasingly stretched natural resources.. Two examples:
- For the production of Walker’s crisps, PepsiCo bought up 6% of the UK potato crop grown on land, in soils, using water and energy that could have been used to produce nutritious food.
- It’s been estimated that, in 2012, Coca Cola’s water consumption was equivalent to that required for the daily needs of over 2bn people.
For more information on these matters, see this blogpost: Drug foods and their specific risks to the food supply system, also this one about a food sector ‘balance sheet’. Two earlier ones also might be of interest: Coca Cola and its effects on us and the city, also How the UK VAT system identifies vested interests costing us and the earth.
What can we do collectively? Our thoughts . . .
In our submission to the National food Strategy Call for Evidence, we said:
- The Government has ultimate responsibility for the food security for every citizen in the UK.
In addition, we recommended the Government set up:
- A UK Food Security Institute, or similar, ideally led by senior members of the MoD or the intelligence community with specific remits regarding food risk and resilience.
- A new statutory funding body, similar to the Arts Council or Sports England. Its purpose would be to enable engaging, informed debate about the food security challenges we’re facing and to generate a myriad of unexplored and as yet unimagined ideas for different actual and potential food systems.
- A Public Inquiry led by a senior Judge. Its concern would be to advise on the authority body we need to ensure food system players act ethically in the protection, promotion and maintenance of sufficient supplies of safe, nutritious food for the UK population.
What can we do individually?
Yup, there are some pointers:
- Drink mostly tap water
- Eat food. Not a lot, Mostly plants. (Michael Pollan’s succinct summary)
- Don’t fly unless you must.
AND, easier for the young (their skin is in this game, literally so) and old codgers like me (who don’t have a career to lose) but important that everyone has a go:
Speak truth to power about:
- Realistic, robust risk and resilience plans (a statutory requirement currently not being met; see here)
- Curbing the activities of companies that make and promote drug-foods, precisely identified at the point of sale (POS) as they carry standard-rate VAT
A final thought
Are we really homo sapiens?
Doing nothing is not an option.