Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Re: The Independent and biofuels

Peter responds to my charge that food security is a non-issue.  His essential argument is that while we're not going to go hungry there are still serious food security concerns as the price of food imports is likely to go up.

I stand by my statement that Britain had little trouble feeding her population during the war.  Let's consider the basic foodstuff, bread, in the first world war (where we started from smallest agricultural base).  Here's the scenario:

1)  Separated from the Continent and, crucially, Russia - a major grain exporter - that drops out of the world market.

3)  Importing four fifths of our grain at the start of the war.

4)  Submarine warfare making importing from the US difficult.

5)  Huge numbers of men enlisted from the farms into the army - this was the real reason that land girls were needed.

6)  All these conditions lasted for several years.

Did this imperil our security?  Not really.  There was a panic at one point in 1916 when it was feared food was running short which led to temporary rationing of some foods but not bread and there was never a real crunch.  In fact, the Germans - who had aimed for self-sufficiency in food before the war - might have gotten in more trouble as that meant more of their workforce worked in agriculture and, when they were enlisted in the army, that led to shortages (our blockade didn't help).  By contrast, Britain moving men out of manufacturing didn't imperil the food supply.

Short of another European land war there is little chance that we'll face similar constraints on our outside food supply again.  Remember that natural disasters damaging food production don't create the same imperative to localise food production.  The best way to avoid getting in trouble if the worst happens and ecological disasters threaten food supplies in a given country or region is to diversify your sources of food as much as you can.  That way the effect of particular regions suffering reductions in yields will be diluted.

So, it's not really about security.  The word "security" is only included because the "food security" lobby think they can break right-wingers' attachment to free trade if they invoke spurious security concerns.

Peter suggests it is actually about reducing food prices.  A few points on this:

1)  Forming economic policy in order to take advantage of expected changes in the terms of trade has a really bad history.  The idea that some products are going to get more expensive so you'd best start making them led a House of Lords report to condemn deindustrialisation under Thatcher (foundation of our economic success since the nineties).

2)  Short of actually going for autarky - which will make food cost more now just in the name of making it less of a shock if it costs more later - international food prices will still be the important thing for consumers.  British output will never be particularly significant for world prices in many foodstuffs.  Of course, some prices are heavily dependent on British output but those are necessarily the areas where our farmers already have a large domestic market share.

3)  If you want to improve food security and prevent prices going up the most important thing to do is increase yields.  As such, Peter's combining his fears of food insecurity with a love of "home-grown" and "organic" produce is something of a contradiction.  It's a lot easier to feed lots of people with good, old fashioned factory farming and as much genetic modification as you can fit on a chromosome.

4)  What does Peter think of biofuels?  If he does anything other than condemn them as folly right now then he doesn't really care about food security.

Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com


James Higham said...

Britain had little trouble feeding her population during the war

Then what about the colonial food parcels and the lard, Matt?

Anonymous said...

I thought that a lot of farm land went unfarmed because of the great depression. Nobody to buy the food.
Also some farms were abandoned as the Church demanded high tithes. I think this was true.
The coming of cheap obedient labour from land girls and conscientious objectors were a help to poor farmers.