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[SANET-MG] policies for sustainable food
http://www.i-sis.org.uk/PFSFSNG.phpISIS Press Release 14/09/05
Policies for Sustainable Food Systems, National and Global
Why our current agriculture and food production is not sustainable
There are five reasons why our current food system is not sustainable.
First, the increasingly mechanised agriculture depends on oil, but the
supply of oil is beginning to run out, or at least half of the 2
trillion barrels of oil available has already been used and oil demand
from China, India and other major developing countries which are
industrialising fast is rising so sharply that production cannot keep up
with demand, and permanent shortages of oil will kick in within a
decade or less. The price of oil will escalate to $100-$200+, and
oil-driven food production will sharply decline.
Second, the growing shortage of water means that half a billion people
now already live in water-stressed areas, and the UN expects this to
rise 5-6 fold to half the world population by 2025. This will lead to
massive shifts of populations and water wars. Frankly, the current use
of water in agriculture is extravagant and utterly unsustainable. For
example, US prairie farmers and East Anglian barley barons need 1 000
tonnes of water to produce 1 tonne of grain, plus 1 000 energy units are
used for every 1 energy unit of processed food. That is just not
Third, the intensification of climate change has led to a ten-fold
increase in the incidence and ferocity of climatic catastrophes in the
past 40 years. These include major-scale hurricanes, cyclones, floods,
as well as increasing drought, desertification, inextinguishable forest
fires, which are now rendering more and more croplands unusable or
infertile. Half a billion of the world population now do not have
croplands on which they can maintain themselves. The latest UN report
says one sixth of countries in the world (up to 30 nations) now face
food shortages because of climate change. The London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine estimates 160 000 now die every year from
climate-change induced malnutrition, dysentery and malaria.
Fourth, the loss of biodiversity from monocultures imposed by
industrialised farming, not least GM crops. A quarter of the world’s GM
crops are grown in Argentina, where huge areas were cleared to grow GM
soya, especially Argentina’s pampas, previously one of the most
organically productive areas in the world.
Fifth, long-distance transportation of food across the world is
incompatible with the requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by
60 percent by 2050. Between 1968-88, world food production increased 84
percent and the world population 91 percent, but world food trade
increased 184 percent (i.e. doubled), yet planes and cars are the
fastest rising causes of greenhouse gas emissions. To put that in
household terms – a typical UK family of four emits per year 4 tonnes of
CO2 from the house, 4 tonnes from the car, but 8 tonnes from production,
processing, packaging and distribution of the food they eat.
So what should be done?
I have five proposals. First, we need a massive switch from highly
mechanised, pesticide-driven agriculture to low-input/organic
agriculture with energy saving up to 10-fold. How? The current food
system is linear in design, treating inputs like energy and raw
materials as infinitely available (which they are not) and the
environment as infinitely capable of absorbing waste (which it is not).
This is not sustainable. To change this, we need a tax system that
factors in the full cost of all these finite items and uses the proceeds
to subsidise organic, low input and localised agriculture systems. In
contrast, organic production systems are an example of sustainable
circular methods of food production in harmony with the natural
eco-system. Is this happening? Well, although sales of organic food in
the UK have quadrupled from £260 million in 1997 to over £1 billion now,
the one million acres now devoted to organic production is still only
2-3% of agricultural land in the UK.
Second, developing a sustainable food system should become a major
Government policy based on setting targets for:
Sustainable food production
Local sourcing of food
These targets are to be achieved within specific timescales. The
Government’s Organic Action Plan Group, which I chaired, did set a
target to increase the percentage of organic food consumed in the UK
which was produced in the UK from 30 percent to 70 percent by 2010, but
(as so often) the mechanisms to deliver it were delayed and weak – the
UK was until recently the only country in the EU15 which did not offer
post-conversion aid to new organic farmers. Moreover, none of the other
necessary objectives I have listed are currently subject to targets,
apart from agri-environmental schemes to encourage broad and shallow
adoption of very modest environmental standards.
Third, the very large external/environmental costs of transportation
must be internalised. Transporting agricultural products in the UK
(mainly big heavy goods vehicles) emits 1.1mt CO2 per year, and
transporting beverages and other foodstuffs emits 3 mt CO2 per year.
So, transporting crops and food together accounts for one fortieth of
all the UK’s CO2 emissions per year. That is not sustainable and
indeed, at the start of the foot and mouth outbreak, one of the reasons
why disease took hold so quickly was huge transportation of animals
across the country every day for marketing. We have what is
euphemistically called a ‘cheap food’ policy in this country – it is no
such thing: it takes no account for example of costs of water
purification after agriculture and pesticide run-off, nor of damage to
the environment from long-distance transportation and exacerbating
climate change. At the very least, we should require all food products
to be labelled to indicate the environmental impact of distribution, and
organic and other assurance schemes should take the lead by introducing
the proximity principle into certification. But what is fundamentally
needed is a revolution in environmental and social accounting, so that a
flat-rate VAT is supplemented by a tax surcharge on over-exploitation of
natural resources and on long-distance transport of certain agricultural
products (those which can be cultivated locally under EU rules).
Fourth, sustainable food system should promote human health and
certainly not harm it. There is now increasingly convincing evidence
that industrialised farming systems do the reverse. Here are two pieces
Latest Government figures, just released, reveal continuing massive
increases in the use of pesticides – the area of crops sprayed with
pesticides increased by another 1 million hectares in the last two
years; altogether over the last decade the use of pesticides in the UK
has increased by over 30 percent.
Evidence linking pesticides and brain diseases like Parkinson’s,
Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease is now compelling – the
Association of Clinical Pathologist reviewed the issue in depth in 2001
and concluded “there is an apparent consistency of epidemiological
reports link Parkinson’s Disease with pesticide exposure” and the most
recent finding is that farmers exposed to pesticides are 43 percent more
likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease. This urgently needs to be
followed up by the Government.
But why is this not followed up by the Government? Might the fact that
DEFRA’s Pesticide Safety Directorate depends for 60 percent of its
revenue on agro-chemical industries have something to do with it?
Fifth, globally, what is making so much of the world’s food systems
unsustainable is climate change. Drying out of croplands and the growth
of continental and Indonesian fires on a rising scale and the rising
frequency and ferocity of storms, cyclones, flooding and rising sea
level, increasingly put at risk feeding of up to 9 billion people on
this planet by 2050. Climate change will only be reversed by
fundamental changes in the world economy, national societies and our
individual way of life, but the minimum requirement is already clear.
Massive switch out of fossil fuels to renewables, on a far bigger scale
than any country (including the UK) has yet envisaged, that is what is
now urgently needed, not a revival of nuclear power.
A system of contraction and convergence negotiated between the
industrialised North of the world and the developing South, which
requires the North to contract greenhouse gas emissions by over 60
percent by 2050 while allowing the South to industrialise cleanly, and
overall keeping global greenhouse gas emissions within a level which
scientists believe safe.
A huge uplift in energy efficiency is needed to end the current
prodigious waste. US power stations discard more waste heat than they
generate; only one seventh of the energy from cars reaches the wheels;
only one quarters of the energy from ovens reaches the food.
Sustainable food systems should be at the heart of global policy, not
(as now) another device for exercise of imperial power by the strongest
nations. The pressure for reform could hardly be stronger. If we do
not learn lessons of what is facing us, our planet Earth will apply
those lessons itself, but at a price which at worst could cast
considerable doubt on the survival of our own species.
This article was a speech delivered at Sustainable World International
Conference 14 July 2005, Westminster, London.
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