With all the fuss over energy prices and energy security another aspect of oil dependency that of food costs gets forgotten. That’s why I was so pleased to see a documentary on food costs on channel 4 over the last few weeks. This a review of the second programme with some comments by me. It followed the format of the first looking at some key foods which raise some key challenges for the global food system going forward. This week Jimmy looked at corn, eggs, pork and coffee.
Corn is one of the worlds most popular crops. Used as animal feed and to make maize flour as well as corn on the cob, its price has rocketed from £88/tonne to over £200 in the last 10 years. There is no shortage of production to blame this rise on. The culprit is biofuels. 96% of petrol sold in the USA contains 10% bioethanol. 40% of all corn grown in the US is now used for biofuel production at a yield of 2.8 gallons per bushel. When oil prices are high it makes sense to use corn to make biofuels as a petrol substitute so the price of corn rises. Of course corn is also used as animal feed and this has pushed up the prices of eggs and pork. This is a classic dilemma which as occurred in agricultural history, do we eat or use our land for some other than food use?
In 10 years we have seen an 80% rise in the price of eggs. After the war and the end of rationing UK egg demand surged and so did prices. Farmers developed battery farming which slashed egg prices. However the practice was regarded as cruel and after a long campaign the EU in 2012 banned factory farming. Colony farming was introduced. Colony farming gives the birds a bit more space and they live in smaller colonies of birds. Although this to me looked unacceptable in terms of contact with the outside world and the space the birds had to move around in, its still factory farming. This is one aspect of recent price increases. The other is feed costs (see above). Yet another that was not mentioned in this context was energy prices, battery farming was very energy intensive. However, one possible solution was shown in the US. In Illinois farmers are using old fashioned small farm diversified techniques. By mixing cattle and chickens the farmers hope to keep rices down. The cattle keep the grass short for the chickens and the chickens fertilize the grass for the cattle. By using varieties of chickens that are good at foraging less feed is used. Less feed means the price of eggs are less dependent on the global feed market keeping food costs down (eggs are used in so many foods). Jimmy didn’t think this could compete with factory farming, I think he is probably right.
Pork at £5/kilo10 years ago is now over £7 a kilo, although farmers in the UK have not seen all the benefit of these increases. Jimmy at this point headed for Taiwan. Taiwan influences China and the demand for pork has rocketed 210% since 1970’s in this country. China now eats an astonishing 50% of the world’s pork. Of course pigs need to eat and China and Taiwan now buying vast quantities of feed. One feed is soy, soy prices have from 200 dollars a tones to over 500 today, pushing up the price of this staple. Jimmy spoke to one pig farmer in the UK who like for beef last week thinks pork will become a luxury even in the West.
In 15 years demand has risen 450%. Everywhere coffee is seen as a sign of civilised living. Ethiopia gave the world coffee and its here Jimmy went next. Ethiopia is the 3Rd biggest producer in the world by means of small organic family farms. One of the problems is the Arabica coffee plant is a weak plant and is prone to die of diseases. One fungal disease “coffee rust” is a huge problem. In 2011 the disease struck in Colombia, that and huge demand sent prices through the roof but climate change is also causing weather related issues and helping the spread of another pest the coffee borer. Climate change is having such an impact that Ethiopia my not be able to grow any coffee at all.
The programme ended on a cheery note that hopefully something will crop up (no pun intended) to help keep our food costs down but one positive spin off was it might make us think more about where our food had come from and how it reached us. This was one weakness of the programme that not many solutions were advanced. Governments around the world fret about energy costs but not food costs. Is this because they have less direct control? I don’t know but over the next few months this blog will be returning to this issue and trying to find some solutions to the issue of food costs.
Don’t forget our No oil in the lamp – Lent guide which has some ideas on food.