Expect to hear a lot about food security in 2010—there are lean times ahead. Perhaps some hot buttered rum will helpby Alex Renton / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
The coming crisis in food
“Food insecurity,” a development academic said recently, “is the new Aids.” It’s a hideous formulation, but we will hear an awful lot about hunger and the prospect of there being less food to go round as this century progresses. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), in 2009 the number of undernourished people on the planet topped 1bn for the first time.
After the disappointments of Copenhagen, climate change campaigners can rally around the issue of food. September’s summit on the UN millennium development goals will be one arena. A documentary on the food industry’s failures, Food Inc, comes out in February; its co-producer, Eric Schlosser, proved with his book Fast Food Nation that you can get poverty campaigners to shout about food. And with reason: we will probably run out of things to eat long before we are overcome by rising sea levels.
This is, of course, partly because of population growth, partly because of the effects of warming on agriculture in the hotter regions and—most importantly—because of people’s habit of eating more protein as they get wealthier. Meat, famously, uses far more resources per person fed: producing one kilo of beef requires between 6-10kg of vegetable matter and up to 16,000 litres of water. In China, meat consumption has roughly doubled every decade since 1985. The UNFAO says that we need to double food production in the next 40 years to keep pace with demand—and that’s without accounting for the effects of climate change.What’s the answer? Controls on economic development? Compulsory vegetarianism? No one has a clue. A much vaunted UN summit on food security in November produced only vague promises. The poverty lobby wants small farmers and sustainable irrigation supported; environmentalists would like to see food waste addressed; neophiles (and the Economist) pin their hopes on biotechnology, looking back to the green revolution that transformed Indian agriculture half a century ago. Action has come mainly from private donors—in 2009, Bill Gates put more than £24m into research on drought-tolerant maize.
The debate is heating up. In November I watched Robert Watson—the Gandalf figure who is Defra chief scientific adviser—give his celebrated PowerPoint presentation on food security and climate change. This has now been watched in most places where they think about policy and it is certainly the gloomiest document about food ever seen in Westminster, after the menus of Whitehall…